Fresh Water in the Arctic — Changing Planet

ANNE THOMPSON, reporting: The Arctic can be a harsh and forbidding place.
But this ice-covered ocean, the Earth’s smallest, is feeling big impacts from a warming world
with scientists recording unprecedented changes in the balance of fresh and salt water. RICHARD KRISHFIELD (Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution): The Arctic is a key. I mean, it’s one of the places that is very sensitive
to climate change. It’s likely to respond, you know, very extremely to climate change. THOMPSON: Rick Krishfield is part of a scientific
team documenting what’s happening in the Arctic Ocean. His annual trips to record water temperatures
and the amount of salt in the water are supplemented by daily emails from buoys he left behind,
sending data twice a day to his laboratory at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute
in Massachusetts. The buoys are deployed in an area called the
Beaufort Gyre. It’s the dominant current in the Arctic, slowly moving and mixing the waters,
including a massive amount of fresh water from northern rivers and the Bering Strait. THOMPSON: What’s happening up in the Arctic
Ocean, some 5,000 miles north of Woods Hole, could have a big impact on the climate here,
and along the Eastern Seaboard of the United States. In the Arctic, cold, fresh water sits on the
surface of the ocean, protecting the polar ice from the warmer water below. The clockwise
circulation of the Beaufort Gyre traps that freshwater in place up north. But periodically
the Gyre weakens, releasing some fresh water south. If the Gyre releases too much fresh
water, it can flow into the North Atlantic and act as a barrier, keeping warmer Gulf
Stream water from releasing its heat into the atmosphere. Arctic Group leader Andrey
Proshutinsky says too much fresh water there could impact the climate of the entire northern
hemisphere, putting a chill in North America and Europe. Dr. ANDREY PROSHUTINSKY (Woods Hole Oceanographic
Institution): And that’s why we have to know how much fresh water we have in this upper
layer. If we have too much, heat cannot penetrate to atmosphere, and atmosphere is getting colder
and climate is cooling. THOMPSON: So, the fresh water, in effect,
is a blanket? PROSHUTINSKY: This is–yeah, this is–works
like a blanket. So if you interrupt this flow of heat, or cover it with blanket of fresh
water, we will observe cooling. THOMPSON: In his younger days, Proshutinsky
flew on some of the earliest Soviet missions to unexplored areas of the Arctic. Science
has come a long way since then, but doing research in the Arctic is still extremely
difficult, and people still can’t make observations there year-round. THOMPSON: To track the daily course of fresh
water, scientists and engineers went back to the drawing board. They developed new instruments
to give them information they could only guess at until now. The team at Woods Hole developed the ITP,
or Ice-Tethered Profiler, a yellow buoy that they’ve successfully deployed on the Arctic
ice year round. It’s neat, compact, and only occasionally attracts the stray polar bear. RICHARD KRISHFIELD: Polar bears are known
to frequent whatever buoys and things that they can find on the ice. And they’re gonna
grab em and theyre gonna bite em, and theyre gonna see if they’re edible or not. And this
guy, apparently, you can see, punctured it with his claws a few times here. And then
he ripped some chunks out of it to see whether it tasted good or not. THOMPSON: The ITP sends an instrument 700-meters,
or about 23-hundred feet, up and down a wire deep in the Arctic water, taking measurements
every 25 centimeters, or about 10-inches, recording water temperature and salt content.
The data shows that fresh water has been accumulating dramatically in the Arctic Ocean over the
last twelve years. KRISHFIELD: The redder contours mean that
it’s more fresh water. The bluer means less. THOMPSON: Wow, look at the difference there,
2005 and 2009, just in four years. KRISHFIELD: Huge. THOMPSON: A build up Proshutinsky finds alarming. PROTUSHINSKY: Ocean accumulates fresh water
and releases, accumulates and releases. But if it is unbalanced, it’s possible that too
much fresh water will be released. And in this case, we can have some dramatic changes
in climate. THOMPSON: Is the Arctic Ocean out of balance? PROSHUTINSKY: Right now, it’s at a very unstable
situation. THOMPSON: Scientists admit they don’t understand
everything about the impact that Arctic fresh water could have on global climate. But they
do know that how the ocean responds to the threat of climate change will depend on the
delicate balance of air, sea and ice at the top of the world.

Comments 7

  • @ultrapirtle Would you like to, you know, show it? Because NASA sort of says otherwise. Also, "global warming" is a very "newsy" term. Please call it climate change.

  • @ultrapirtle Damn dislikes bein' all tricksy. -_-

  • These studies have not been going on long enough to come to a conclusion, not even close.  They stick a thing in the water and get reading and are suddenly alarmed at the readings which are brand spanking new and they have NOTHING to compare them to.  This might be a perfectly normal cycle.  I'm sick of the fear mongering.

  • My take now is we're too late to control climate by ending emissions by a couple of decades being at 400-ppm gaining 3-ppm/year we need a physical cool-down.

    Consider damming Bering Strait, the purpose really is to encourage the Chukchi Sea & Laptev Sea to freeze over sooner and have the ice stay longer, no warm Pacific Ocean water allowed in.

    That's the least risky geoengineering that may work to cool the North Atlantic and allow the eastern basin to gain ice without a cooler planet.

    If it doesn't help it can be removed, unlike adding aerosols to the atmosphere daily forevermore to keep heat from getting in and if it goes wrong then what?

  • Doesn't this stop by the time the glacial melt is gone?

    A study on global glacial streamflow, has macro "watersheds" and most on below 20% by 2050; "World-Wide Glacier Wastage – Implications for Sea-Level and Streamflow"; 44:06;

  • If the fresh water is changing the ocean then stop letting it hit the ocean and tap into it like oil then collect it just let it pour into your vessels and then bring it to us to drink

  • 7 years later we're still waiting… prepare for crop failures

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