Arctic freshwater bulge detected

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UK scientists have detected a huge dome of freshwater that is developing in the western Arctic Ocean.

The bulge is some 8,000 cubic km in size and has risen by about 15cm since 2002.

The team thinks it may be the result of strong winds whipping up a great clockwise current in the northern polar region called the Beaufort Gyre.

This would force the water together, raising sea surface height, the group tells the journal Nature Geoscience.

“In the western Arctic, the Beaufort Gyre is driven by a permanent anti-cyclonic wind circulation. It drives the water, forcing it to pile up in the centre of gyre, and this domes the sea surface,” explained lead author Dr Katharine Giles from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at University College London.

“In our data, we see the trend being biggest in the centre of the gyre and less around the edges,” she told BBC News.

Dr Giles and colleagues made their discovery using radar satellites belonging to the European Space Agency (Esa).

These spacecraft can measure sea-surface height even when there is widespread ice cover because they are adept at picking out the cracks, or leads, that frequently appear in the frozen floes.

The data (1995-2010) indicates a significant swelling of water in the Beaufort Gyre, particularly since the early part of the 2000s. The rising trend has been running at 2cm per year.

Model prediction

A lot of research from buoys and other in-situ sampling had already indicated that water in this region of the Arctic had been freshening.

This freshwater is coming in large part from the rivers running off the Eurasian (Russian) side of the Arctic basin.

Winds and currents have transported this freshwater around the ocean until it has been pulled into the gyre. The volume currently held in the circulation probably represents about 10% of all the freshwater in the Arctic.

Of interest to future observations is what might happen if the anticyclonic winds, which have been whipping up the bulge, change behaviour.

“What we seen occurring is precisely what the climate models had predicted,” said Dr Giles.

“When you have clockwise rotation – the freshwater is stored. If the wind goes the other way – and that has happened in the past – then the freshwater can be pushed to the margins of the Arctic Ocean.

“If the spin-up starts to spin down, the freshwater could be released. It could go to the rest of the Arctic Ocean or even leave the Arctic Ocean.”

If the freshwater were to enter the North Atlantic in large volumes, the concern would be that it might disturb the currents that have such a great influence on European weather patterns. These currents draw warm waters up from the tropics, maintaining milder temperatures in winter than would ordinarily be expected at northern European latitudes.

The creation of the Beaufort Gyre bulge is not a continuous development throughout the 15-year data-set, and only becomes a dominant feature in the latter half of the study period.

This may indicate a change in the relationship between the wind and the ocean in the Arctic brought about by the recent rapid decline in sea-ice cover, the CPOM team argues in its Nature Geoscience paper.

It is possible that the wind is now imparting momentum to the water in ways that were not possible when the sea-ice was thicker and more extensive.

“The ice is now much freer to move around,” said Dr Giles.