Are Ocean Currents Speeding Up…Or Down? Nobody Knows

Written by Dr David Whitehouse

ocean waves sea

“Global warming is speeding up Earth’s massive ocean currents,” said one headline.

“Global ocean circulation is accelerating from the surface to the abyss,” said another.”

But this is another of those climate stories in which the top line is not backed up by the qualifications raised by oceanic researchers when looking at the results of this fascinating paper.

Published in Science Advances, it suggests that for almost 25 years, ocean currents have been rapidly speeding up, partly due to global warming, according to a new study.

It contradicts previous studies that suggested that global warming will weaken ocean circulation, especially in tropical waters. This new study suggests the acceleration in ocean currents will be especially strong in tropical waters!

Global Ocean Circulation since the 1990s.

A key point is that there is no sustained direct measurement of the ocean’s currents, so it has to be inferred using other means.

When this is done the numerous gaps in the data are filled in with results from computer models and anyone can see the caution this method should raise.

Based on observations and models, study authors claim that from 1990 to 2013, the energy of the world’s currents increased by some 15% per decade.

The researchers put this down to strengthening winds driving ocean currents. Ocean winds have increased over the past 30 years. The increase is about 2% per decade and is itself part of a longer-term trend.

The main evidence for this change comes from six years of Argo data whose floating and diving buoys have been operating since 2005 and have produced the most coherent database on ocean parameters we have.

They do not directly measure ocean currents, but a good inference can be obtained from their movements and indications where winds are piling up regions of the ocean.

Hu Shijian of the Chinese Academy of Science’s Institute of Oceanography is the lead author of the study. He points out that that this new paper is different from previous studies that looked for an ocean circulation increase.

Indeed, given varying regional responses to global warming, it has not been possible to deduce how and whether global ocean circulation has been altered.

“So far observations haven’t shown a trend,” Shijian said. So, he set about the reanalysis route to see if he could find one.

A review article in Science noted that as yet natural fluctuations cannot be ruled out and that it will take another decade at least to see if the trend is real and possibly associated with global warming.

Quoted in Science, Susan Wijffels, of the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution said, “It’s going to stimulate a lot of other work.”

Read more at GWPF


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Comments (8)

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    Herb Rose

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    The speed of the equatorial currents and those produced by them is determined by the rotation of the Earth, not wind. (Wind produces waves.) At the equator the surface of the Earths moves east at 1000 mph. (Slower at other latitudes.) Because of the inertia of water the water at the equator moves east slower producing an apparent westerly flow. By moving west the water is exposed to sunlight longer and absorbs more energy. The amount of energy in the currents may change with the energy coming from the sun but the speed of the currents will only change if the speed of the Earth’s rotation changes.

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      tom0mason

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      So you say “The amount of energy in the currents may change with the energy coming from the sun “ what is the time scale for these ocean currents retaining solar energy?

      And as some of this solar energy gets entangled into organic processes then the ‘energy balance’ of this planet does NOT occur as scientist imagine?
      Energy in (from the sun) does not at any moment equal energy out as the energy out varies with how much is accumulated by organic matter (a processes which at it’s basics converts solar energy to chemical bonds) and the energy which is retained by the oceans. Energy in from the sun varies and energy out varies, and their variability is not always perfectly synchronized, due to all the many processes (some organic others not) that happens on this planet.

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        Herb Rose

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        Hi Tom,
        The Atlantic equatorial current strikes Brazil and becomes the Gulf Stream distributing heat all the way to Great Britain. The pacific current is blocked by Indonesia, the Philippines, and other islands restricting its flow causing a pool of water that eventually is pushed west as El Nino.
        As to the energy stored by organic materials and chemical bonds the length of storage depends on conditions. A fire release the stored energy all at once but coal retains it for million of years. In general though it is controlled by the sun. If the sun produces less energy plants die and decompose releasing their storedvxnergy. If the output of the sun increases plants grow faster and store more energy. The Earth tries to equalize its output of energy with the input from the sun but there is an inherent delay and it can be affect by increases in the release of geothermal energy.
        Herb

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          tom0mason

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          “As to the energy stored by organic materials and chemical bonds the length of storage depends on conditions. “
          agreed however when looking at deep excavations and geological site I’m always struck by the soil layers down there. and within those old soil layer are the remains of the organic life that thrived because of solar energy.
          This report make much mention of the carbon stored by the previously living matter but no mention of the solar energy locked up with it — https://blogs.ei.columbia.edu/2019/10/21/northern-peatlands-double-carbon/.
          Peatlands, old boglands, older forests soils, old frozen (but defrosting) tundra, and deep oceans’ sludge all have great stores of old solar energy locked into their organic chemistry.
          All this and the oceans retaining solar energy ensure that the ‘energy balance’ is less than a balance as at any moment energy out does not equal energy in.

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    Matt

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    The Supermoon on November 14, 2016, was the closest a Full Moon has been to Earth since January 26, 1948. The next time a Full Moon is even closer to Earth will be on November 25, 2034.
    (no reference, sorry)

    Moon cycles would probably have the most significant effect on oceanic current variation.

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    Barry

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    People have to quit living in their own little world as if the whole climate of earth is only affected by their lifetime. As we all know the earth is billions of years old and has been through amazingly different weather and climate cycles,saying that the climate is different today than when I was young is like saying it was warm today but if I wake up to a colder day tomorrow then the climate has been changed by some mysterious force. I doubt any of us live long enough to actually see any real climate change most of us will only see different weather patterns in our lifetime.

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      tom0mason

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      Yes!
      How can we properly assess or evaluate the impact of a ~140, ~400, or ~800 year cycles when we only observe our own lifetime of weather and climate?
      Science can give us some insights but politics and society is what affects us most.

      Reply

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