Understanding large-scale global climate and local weather patterns is important. Majority of our planet is covered by oceans therefore understanding ocean dynamics is key for making climatic forecasts. Here you can watch four interrelated animations produced by NASA’s Scientific Visualization Studio in a single video. All animations are based on simulations of high resolution satellite data on an impressively realistic General Circulation Model (GCMs) that NASA uses called ECCO2 (Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean Phase II). These simulations based on real data is crucial for understanding major global problems such as ocean acidification due to increased carbondioxide levels in the atmosphere.
First animation called “Perpetual Ocean” shows ocean surface currents measured between July 2005 and December 2007. Measurements from 2005 is particularly important for climate modellers because that was the year of intense hurricanes over the Caribbean.
At the beginning of the video you can see the notorious Loop Current in the Gulf of Mexico. This current is one of the main factors for intensification of Atlantic hurricanes. In 2005 Hurricane Rita intensified into Category 5 overnight when she passed over the Loop Current. Another noticeable feature is the Agulhas Rings in South Africa. Starting from the coast of Taiwan you can also observe a distinct current known as Kuroshio flowing in a manner similar to that of the Gulf Stream past Japan
Second animation shows Global Thermohaline Circulation with special emphasis on the North Atlantic Ocean where a major sinking of cold high-salinity water occurs. Sinking water gets carried away to the South along the North Atlantic Deep Water Current. The thermohaline animation ends with a very important feature of the global ocean circulation: the Antarctic Circumpolar Current. This current is the largest on our planet. The region around latitude 60 south is the only part of the Earth where the ocean can flow all the way around the world with no land barriers. The surface and deep waters together flow from west to east around Antarctica. This circumpolar motion links the world’s oceans and allows the deep water circulation from the Atlantic to move into upwelling zones in the Indian and Pacific Oceans.
Third animation shows the Gulf Stream pumping warm waters all the way across from the Caribbean to Western Europe. The influx of warm water into the North Atlantic polar ocean keeps the regions around Iceland and southern Greenland generally free of sea ice year round. Fourth animation shows ocean surface temperature gradient, surface water currents, wind currents and large-scale thermohaline currents measured by the Aquarius satellite respectively.
Ocean salinity is one of the drivers of the thermohaline circulation. NASA and Argentina Space Agency launched Aquarius satellite in June 2011 to measure differences in ocean surface salinity levels. You can see a global map of ocean surface salinity in the video below:
Supported by BBC, worlds largest climate simulation and prediction experiment is currently running in Hadley Center for Climate Prediction and Research with the help of more than 100 thousand volunteers (including the author of this post). Results of the first 10 thousand simulations were published in Nature Geoscience warning that global average temperatures will increase by more than 3 degrees Celsius by no later than year 2050. Similar to NASA’s ECCO2, this experiment used a general circulation model called HadCM3L. HadCM3L is a version of the Hadley Center Model slicing the atmosphere into 19 vertical levels. The ocean is also sliced into 20 levels. The model contains an interactive sulphur cycle taking various scenarios of fossil fuel emissions into account.
Global warming is a top priority problem that must be tackled immediately. Anyone can help scientists and be a part of a solution by donating unused computation power of their computers. Using a method called distributed computation or volunteer computing you can help scientists solve rather complex problems. For example you can help computer models to learn from data recorded in the past so that they can predict future climate. Now that high-resolution unbiased satellite data is literally raining in from the sky there is a growing need for citizen scientists for rapid interpretation. One distributed computing network used by scientists is Berkeley Open Infrastructure for Network Computing (BOINC).
You can learn more about how citizen scientists can be engaged in large scale projects by listening to this short podcast in 21 February 2011 issue of Science Magazine podcast.
Science is doing its job superbly in telling what is happening globally around us and our world is not limited to what we see from our windows.