Oceanographer: Warming sea near Antarctica heralds climate change
'Southern Ocean is warming twice as fast as the global ocean'
SAN DIEGO, California (CNN) -- A seemingly minute rise in Southern Ocean temperatures could herald a more profound change in ocean and air temperatures throughout the world, an oceanographer says.
Sarah Gille, assistant professor at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography of the University of California at San Diego, said she has recorded an increase in the temperature over a vast ocean area of one-third of one degree Fahrenheit in the past half-century.
Although that may not be enough for the most sensitive of swimmers to notice, it could foretell a huge impact on world climate, she says in a study published Thursday in the journal Nature.
The study used about 300 data recorders in the ocean waters around Antarctica to document the rise. They make up the Autonomous Lagrangian Circulation Explorer -- ALACE -- and indicated a rise of 0.17 degrees Celsius, or about a third of a degree Fahrenheit, in ocean waters since the 1950s.
"The Southern Ocean is warming twice as fast as the global ocean as a whole," Gille says.
A climate 'conveyor belt'
The Southern Ocean is dominated by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC), which encircles the continent with an eastward-flowing layer of the coldest ocean waters on earth.
Because the current circles the globe without interference from land masses, its waters serve as a climate "conveyor belt," mixing the waters of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. The ACC's cold waters help regulate the temperatures of all three and exert an enormous influence on much of the world's weather.
In ocean areas where the extra-cold Antarctic waters meet warm-water currents streaming from tropical oceans, the ACC can generate some of the highest waves and most terrifying storms on earth -- particularly near South America's Cape Horn.
Explorers and pioneers "rounding the Horn" to travel from the Atlantic to the Pacific brought back some of the first horror stories about encounters with 100-foot waves.
The ALACE devices sink to a pre-determined depth, where they record temperature and ocean current data for several weeks at a time. They then surface, uplink their data to a satellite, and sink again to record more data.
New iceberg breaks free in Antarctica
February 7, 2002
Scientific winds blow hot and cold in Antarctica
January 25, 2002
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