NASA finds new way to track ocean currents from space

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NASA’s GRACE satellites (artist’s concept) measured Atlantic Ocean bottom pressure as an indicator of deep ocean current speed. In 2009, this pattern of above-average (blue) and below-average (red) seafloor pressure revealed a temporary slowing of the deep currents. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech Enlarge

A team of NASA and university scientists has developed a new way to use satellite measurements to track changes in Atlantic Ocean currents, which are a driving force in global climate. The finding opens a path to better monitoring and understanding of how ocean circulation is changing and what the changes may mean for future climate.

In the Atlantic, currents at the surface, such as the Gulf Stream, carry sun-warmed water from the tropics northeastward. As the water moves through colder regions, it sheds its heat. By the time it gets to Greenland, it’s so cold and dense that it sinks a couple of miles down into the ocean depths. There it turns and flows back south. This open loop of shallow and deep currents is known to oceanographers as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)—part of the “conveyor belt” of ocean currents circulating water, heat and nutrients around the globe and affecting climate.

Because the AMOC moves so much heat, any change in it is likely to be an important indicator of how our planet is responding to warming caused by increasing greenhouse gases. In the last decade, a few isolated measurements have suggested that the AMOC is slowing down and moving less water. Many researchers are expecting the current to weaken as a consequence of global warming, but natural variations may also be involved. To better understand what is going on, scientists would like to have consistent observations over time that cover the entire Atlantic.

“This [new] satellite approach allows us to improve projections of future changes and—quite literally—get to the bottom of what drives ocean current changes,” said Felix Landerer of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, who led the research team.

Landerer and his colleagues used data from the twin satellites of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission. Launched in 2002, GRACE provides a monthly record of tiny changes in Earth’s gravitational field, caused by changes in the amount of mass below the satellites. The mass of Earth’s land surfaces doesn’t change much over the course of a month; but the mass of water on or near Earth’s surface does, for example, as ice sheets melt and water is pumped from underground aquifers. GRACE has proven invaluable in tracking these changes.

At the bottom of the atmosphere—on Earth’s surface—changes in air pressure (a measure of the mass of the air) tell us about flowing air, or wind. At the bottom of the ocean, changes in pressure tell us about flowing water, or currents. Landerer and his team developed a way to isolate in the GRACE gravity data the signal of tiny pressure differences at the ocean bottom that are caused by changes in the deep .

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