NASA Sees Arctic Ocean Circulation Do an About-Face

It may be the name of a car, a planet, and a Roman god, but (as best we know) none of those are toxic to humans or the environment. Mercury, a natural element of the Earth, is now better known as a potentially deadly metal. It is a potent neurotoxin, particularly damaging to the development of fetuses, infants and young children. Our exposure to methylated mercury, the most toxic form, is largely through eating contaminated fish.

The team, led by James Morison of the University of Washington's Polar Science Center Applied Physics Laboratory, Seattle, used data from an Earth-observing satellite and from deep-sea pressure gauges to monitor Arctic Ocean circulation from 2002 to 2006. They measured changes in the weight of columns of Arctic Ocean water, from the surface to the ocean bottom. That weight is influenced by factors such as the height of the ocean's surface, and its salinity. A saltier ocean is heavier and circulates differently than one with less salt.

Reporting in Geophysical Research Letters, the authors attribute the reversal to a weakened Arctic Oscillation, a major atmospheric circulation pattern in the northern hemisphere. The weakening reduced the salinity of the upper ocean near the North Pole, decreasing its weight and changing its circulation.

The Arctic Oscillation was fairly stable until about 1970, but then varied on more or less decadal time scales, with signs of an underlying upward trend, until the late 1990s, when it again stabilized. During its strong counterclockwise phase in the 1990s, the Arctic environment changed markedly, with the upper Arctic Ocean undergoing major changes that persisted into this century. Many scientists viewed the changes as evidence of an ongoing climate shift, raising concerns about the effects of global warming on the Arctic.

Grace monitors tiny month-to-month changes in Earth's gravity field caused primarily by the movement of water in Earth's land, ocean, ice and atmosphere reservoirs. As such it can infer changes in the weight of columns of ocean water. In contrast, the pressure gauges installed on the sea floor in 2005-2006 directly measured water pressure at the bottom of the ocean. Gauge data were remotely recovered during the first year of the study.