The Greenland Sea is warming faster than the world’s oceans


CTD probe being lowered into the depths

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…”

Not exactly snap decisions; but, that wouldn’t surprise anyone familiar with the methods of science. This is why there is more time between IPCC publications, for example, than box scores for the Miami Marlins. When I joined the discussion on climate change at the turn of the millennium, some folks had a few decades of research underlying their analysis.

I spent two years in study while engaged in the debate before I came to my own conclusions. Fortunately, most of the best researchers in the world publish in English – even if it’s not the native language of the institute where they work. This is how you go about real study. Personally, I find a healthy balance between the naturally conservative pace of science and my own root progressivism.

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