Secrets of Deep Blue Sea

By Christina Birchfield | 1/16/2014

The Southern Ocean is our deepest ocean and the most mysterious. So far, Professor Joellen Russell says, the ocean has moderated the effects of global warming. But ...


Much—93.4 percent—of the heat that would have fired up the globe has gone into the ocean, says University of Arizona biogeochemical dynamics associate professor Joellen Russell.

“The deep southern ocean has taken up a lot of heat, but it can only slow the rate of warming; it can’t reverse it,” Russell said. “We’re getting a tiny moment of grace.”

That “tiny moment of grace” has given climate skeptics fuel to challenge the consensus on climate warming. “When anyone says the globe is not warming anymore, it’s actually warming a lot,” Russell said. She added, “Sometime in the future, we’ll get that heat back, and we’re going to be sorry.”

Professor Russell spoke in November at a public lecture sponsored by the Lunar and Planetary Laboratory (LPL).

The Solar Vortex cold that is now shifting back up to the poles reminded us of Russell’s lecture. We had been waiting for the excellent lecture’s promised podcast to be posted, but the posting has yet to happen. Cold certainly has certainly shown up for the winter, as well as discussion of the great winds that affect earth’s weather. Last week we mentioned the wobbly top effect as wind velocity over the poles diminished allowing arctic winds to wallow for a time in the U.S.

Hermes ancient maxim, What is above is so below, applies to our seas as well as our winds. We know now that many plants have rootballs as large or larger than what we see above ground. Similarly, Russell says, the Antarctic current is the biggest current. It is far larger than the much studied Gulf Stream. We know the Gulf Stream affects climate from the North American Atlantic seacoast to the United Kingdom. Far less known and studied is the great Southern Ocean current. It creates its own vortex in the deep below.

Russell says the Southern Ocean is the least observed and least understood region of the oceans. She is among the team of scientists seeking to rectify our lack of knowledge.
The vast Southern Ocean region surrounding the Antarctic continent is the only place in the global ocean where water upwells from more than two kilometers deep to the surface before sinking again. Russell says the current scours and mows along the ocean bottom.

Russell says the deep of the Southern Ocean holds the key to the rate of warming of our atmosphere. Enormous amounts of heat and carbon have been stored in this great swirling ocean reservoir. Because the southern deep oceans are a heat sink, and heat is a fuel for typhoons and hurricanes, the professor has noted a number of effects. For example, Westerly Winds have moved toward the poles and wind velocity has increased over the last 30 years in both hemispheres.

Her work has shown that the shift of winds over the deep Southern Ocean is changing the flow of water masses critical to the ocean’s absorption of carbon dioxide and heat. These winds, Russell says are also pushing up ocean temperatures, particularly in oceans in the Southern Hemisphere. The effects of ocean warming are helping to raise sea levels and increase the intensity of storms. Moreover and perhaps most worrisome, the climate mitigating effects of the ocean serving as a moderating heat sink diminishes as the oceans warm.

Russell predicts that on our planet, areas that are dry will get drier and areas that are wet will get wetter. And weather will continue to be erratic and intense.


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