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24. September 2013: Long-term data reveal: The deep Greenland Sea is warming faster than the World Ocean

Bremerhaven 25th September 2013. Recent warming of the Greenland Sea Deep Water is about ten times higher than warming rates estimated for the global ocean. Scientists from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research recently published these findings in the journal Geophysical Research Letters. For their study, they analysed  temperature data from 1950 to 2010 in the abyssal Greenland Sea, which is an ocean area located just to the south of the Arctic Ocean.

 

Since 1993, oceanographers from the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research (AWI), have carried out regularly expeditions to the Greenland Sea on board the research ice breaker Polarstern to investigate the changes in this region. The programme has always included extensive temperature and salinity measurements. For the present study, the AWI scientists have combined these long term data set with historical observations dating back to the year 1950. The result of their analysis: In the last thirty years, the water temperature between 2000 metres depth and the sea floor has risen by 0.3 degrees centigrade.

‘This sounds like a small number, but we need to see this in relation to the large mass of water that has been warmed’ says the AWI scientist and lead author of the study, Dr. Raquel Somavilla Cabrillo. ‘The amount of heat accumulated within the lowest 1.5 kilometres in the abyssal Greenland Sea would warm the atmosphere above Europe by 4 degrees centigrade.  The Greenland Sea is just a small part of the global ocean. However, the observed increase of 0.3 degrees in the deep Greenland Sea is ten times higher than the temperature increase in the global ocean on average. For this reason, this area and the remaining less studied polar oceans need to be taken into consideration’.

The cause of the warming is a change in the subtle interplay of two processes in the Greenland Sea: the cooling by deep convection of very cold surface waters in winter and the warming by the import of relatively warm deep waters from the interior Arctic Ocean.  “Until the early 1980s, the central Greenland Sea has been mixed from the top to the bottom by winter cooling at the surface making waters dense enough to reach the sea floor” explains Somavilla. “This transfer of cold water from the top to the bottom has not occurred in the last 30 years. However, relatively warm water continues to flow from the deep Arctic Ocean into the Greenland Sea. Cooling from above and warming through inflow are no longer balanced, and thus the Greenland Sea is progressively becoming warmer and warmer.”

These modified conditions provide AWI scientists with unique research opportunities: “We use these changes as a natural experiment. The warming allows us to calculate how much water flows from the deep central Arctic into the Greenland Sea” says Prof. Dr. Ursula Schauer, head of the Observational Oceanography Department at the Alfred Wegener Institute, about this project and adds: “We observe here a distinct restructuring of the Arctic Ocean. This is a very slow process, and its documentation requires long term observations.”

 

To fully understand, how the world’s oceans react to climate change, scientists need to investigate the Arctic Ocean in more detail. ‘Due to its large volume and its thermal inertia the deep ocean is a powerful heat buffer for climate warming. Especially, the polar oceans are scarcely studied. If we want to understand the role of the deep ocean in the climate system, we need to expand the measurements to remote regions like the Arctic,” AWI-scientist Schauer says. For that, she has already planned further Polarstern expeditions. In 2015, Ursula Schauer and her group will go back to the Arctic.

 

Glossary: Why are the deep waters from the interior Arctic Ocean warm?

The mean temperature of the deep water masses from the interior Arcic Ocean is -0,9 degrees centigrade. That is much warmer than the surface waters of the Greenland Sea, which cool down to  -1,8 degrees in winter. However, where does the warmth of the deep Arctic waters come from? It is the result of a long chain reaction, happening in the shallow seas on the edge of the Arctic Ocean – right there, where in winter sea ice formation takes place. When the sea ice is formed the salt, which is present in the water, does not get enclosed. It leaves the ice instead and increases the salinity and density of the water layer below the ice. Due to their rising density these waters get heavier and start sinking. One can compare this sinking process of the water masses with a snowball falling down a freshly snow-covered slope. The longer the snowball rolls, the more snow get attached to its body. That means, while rolling down the Arctic shelf, the salty sinking water masses come across a layer of warm Atlantic water. They take part of the heat and salt in this Atlantic layer and transport it to deeper levels in the Arctic Ocean. At the bottom of the Arctic Ocean these sinking water masses form a body of warm deep water that later on streams out of the Arctic Ocean into the Greenland Sea.

 

 

Notes for editors:

The study was published in Geophysical Research Letters under the following original title:

R. Somavilla, U. Schauer and G. Budéus: Increasing amount of Arctic Ocean deep waters in the Greenland Sea, GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 40, 4361–4366, doi:10.1002/grl.50775, 2013 – Der Link zur Onlineversion der Studie lautet: 

Your scientific contact persons at the Alfred Wegener Institute (AWI) are:

  • Dr. Raquel Somavilla Cabrillo (Tel.: +49(0)471- 4831-1816, E-Mail: Raquel.Somavilla.Cabrillo(at)awi.de ); Dr. Somavilla is available for interviews in English and Spanish.
  • Prof. Ursula Schauer (Tel.: +49(0)471- 4831-1817, E-Mail: Ursula.Schauer(at)awi.de); Prof. Schauer is available for interviews in English and German.

 

Your contact person in the Department of Communications and Media Relations is Sina Löschke (Tel.: 0471-4831-2008, E-Mail: medien(at)awi.de)

 

The Alfred Wegener Institute conducts research in the Arctic and Antarctic and in the high and mid-latitude oceans.  The Institute coordinates German polar research and provides important infrastructure such as the research icebreaker Polarstern and stations in the Arctic and Antarctic to the international scientific world. The Alfred Wegener Institute is one of the 18 research centres of the Helmholtz Association, the largest scientific organisation in Germany.

Printable Images

The CTD probe

The CTD probe is lowered into the depths. Photo: Thomas Steuer, Alfred-Wegener-Institut

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Increase of water temperature in the deep Greenland Sea

Mean temperature (°C) from 2000 m to the bottom in the central Greenland Sea (74-76°N, 0-6°W) from 1950 to 2009 (red line). The shading shows the range of temperature from 2000 m (warmer limit) to the bottom (colder limit). Source: Alfred-Wegener-Institut

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Operation of the CTD probe

A member of the Polarstern crew is lowering the CTD probe into the depths. With this research device oceanographers measure the conductivity, temperature and depth of the ocean water. Photo: Thomas Steuer, Alfred-Wegener-Institut

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Portrait

Self-portrait of AWI scientist Raquel Somavilla Cabrillo, first author of the new study. Photo: Raquel Somavilla, Alfred-Wegener-Institut

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Location of the Greenland Sea

Map showing the location of the Greenland Sea. The Greenland Sea is the northernmost deep basin (maximum depth: 3700 metre) of the Nordic seas and the only one with a direct deep connection to the Arctic Ocean through Fram Strait. Map: Alfred-Wegener-Institut

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