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NASA climate forecasting is adding salt

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Global differences between evaporation and precipitation

Salt is essential to human life. Most people don’t know, however, that salt — in a form nearly the same as the simple table variety — is just as essential to Earth’s ocean, serving as a critical driver of key ocean processes. While ancient Greek soothsayers believed they could foretell the future by reading the patterns in sprinkled salt, today’s scientists have learned that they can indeed harness this invaluable mineral to foresee the future — of Earth’s climate.

The oracles of modern climate science are the computer models used to forecast climate change. These models, which rely on a myriad of data from many sources, are effective in predicting many climate variables, such as global temperatures. Yet data for some pieces of the climate puzzle have been scarce, including the concentration of dissolved sea salt at the surface of the world’s ocean, commonly called ocean surface salinity, subjecting the models to varying margins of error. This salinity is a key indicator of how Earth’s freshwater moves between the ocean, land and atmosphere.

Enter Aquarius, a new NASA salinity-measurement instrument slated for launch in June 2011 aboard the SAC-D spacecraft built by Argentina’s CONAE. Aquarius’ high-tech, salt-seeking sensors will make comprehensive measurements of ocean surface salinity with the precision needed to help researchers better determine how Earth’s ocean interacts with the atmosphere to influence climate. It’s a mission that promises to be, to quote the old saying, “worth its salt…”

Density-driven ocean circulation, according to Gary Lagerloef, is controlled as much by salinity as by ocean temperature. Sea salt makes up only 3.5 percent of the world’s ocean, but its relatively small presence reaps huge consequences.

Salinity influences the very motion of the ocean and the temperature of seawater, because the concentration of sea salt in the ocean’s surface mixed layer — the portion of the ocean that is actively exchanging water and heat with Earth’s atmosphere — is a critical driver of these ocean processes. It’s the missing variable in understanding the link between the water cycle and ocean circulation. Specifically, it’s an essential metric to modeling precipitation and evaporation…

Until now, researchers had taken ocean salinity measurements from aboard ships, buoys and aircraft – but they’d done so using a wide range of methods across assorted sampling areas and over inconsistent times from one season to another. Because of the sparse and intermittent nature of these salinity observations, researchers have not been able to fine-tune models to obtain a true global picture of how ocean surface salinity is influencing the ocean. Aquarius promises to resolve these deficiencies, seeing changes in ocean surface salinity consistently across space and time and mapping the entire ice-free ocean every seven days for at least three years.

RTFA. The advance work has been accomplished, sensors and data collection have been tuned. Now the task of collecting data will begin with the launch of Aquarius, this month.

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Written by Ed Campbell

June 4, 2011 at 6:00 pm

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