Arctic Ocean freshwater bulge detected
UK scientists have detected a huge dome of fresh water that is developing in the western Arctic Ocean.
The bulge is some 8,000 cubic km in size and has risen by about 15cm since 2002.
The team thinks it may be the result of strong winds whipping up a great clockwise current in the northern polar region called the Beaufort Gyre.
This would force the water together, raising sea surface height, the group tells the journal Nature Geoscience.
“In the western Arctic, the Beaufort Gyre is driven by a permanent anti-cyclonic wind circulation. It drives the water, forcing it to pile up in the centre of gyre, and this domes the sea surface,” explained lead author Dr Katharine Giles from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at University College London.
Arctic summers have seen a decline in both ice extent and thickness
“In our data, we see the trend being biggest in the centre of the gyre and less around the edges,” she told BBC News.
Dr Giles and colleagues made their discovery using radar satellites belonging to the European Space Agency (Esa).
These spacecraft can measure sea-surface height even when there is widespread ice cover because they are adept at picking out the cracks, or leads, that frequently appear in the frozen floes.
The data (1995-2010) indicates a significant swelling of water in the Beaufort Gyre, particularly since the early part of the 2000s. The rising trend has been running at 2cm per year.
A lot of research from buoys and other in-situ sampling had already indicated that water in this region of the Arctic had been freshening.
This fresh water is coming in large part from the rivers running off the Eurasian (Russian) side of the Arctic basin.
Winds and currents have transported this fresh water around the ocean until it has been pulled into the gyre. The volume currently held in the circulation probably represents about 10% of all the fresh water in the Arctic.
Of interest to future observations is what might happen if the anticyclonic winds, which have been whipping up the bulge, change behaviour.
“What we seen occurring is precisely what the climate models had predicted,” said Dr Giles.
“When you have clockwise rotation - the fresh water is stored. If the wind goes the other way - and that has happened in the past - then the fresh water can be pushed to the margins of the Arctic Ocean.
“If the spin-up starts to spin down, the fresh water could be released. It could go to the rest of the Arctic Ocean or even leave the Arctic Ocean.”
If the fresh water were to enter the North Atlantic in large volumes, the concern would be that it might disturb the currents that have such a great influence on European weather patterns. These currents draw warm waters up from the tropics, maintaining milder temperatures in winter than would ordinarily be expected at northern European latitudes.