Marine Science Faculty Publications

Importance of Wind and Meltwater for Observed Chemical and Physical Changes in the Southern Ocean

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Attribution, Climate and Earth system modelling, Climate change, Climate sciences, Ocean sciences

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The Southern Ocean south of 30° S represents only one-third of the total ocean area, yet absorbs half of the total ocean anthropogenic carbon and over two-thirds of ocean anthropogenic heat. In the past, the Southern Ocean has also been one of the most sparsely measured regions of the global ocean. Here we use pre-2005 ocean shipboard measurements alongside novel observations from autonomous floats with biogeochemical sensors to calculate changes in Southern Ocean temperature, salinity, pH and concentrations of nitrate, dissolved inorganic carbon and oxygen over two decades. We find local warming of over 3 °C, salinification of over 0.2 psu near the Antarctic coast, and isopycnals are found to deepen between 65° and 40° S. We find deoxygenation along the Antarctic coast, but reduced deoxygenation and nitrate concentrations where isopycnals deepen farther north. The forced response of the Earth system model ESM2M does not reproduce the observed patterns. Accounting for meltwater and poleward-intensifying winds in ESM2M improves reproduction of the observed large-scale changes, demonstrating the importance of recent changes in wind and meltwater. Future Southern Ocean biogeochemical changes are likely to be influenced by the relative strength of meltwater input and poleward-intensifying winds. The combined effect could lead to increased Southern Ocean deoxygenation and nutrient accumulation, starving the global ocean of nutrients sooner than otherwise expected. Physical and biogeochemical changes in the Southern Ocean over the past decade are largely due to growing meltwater input and intensifying poleward winds, according to observations from ships and floats and model simulations.

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Nature Geoscience, v. 13, p. 35-42