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Mysterious Changes in Ocean Salt Spur NASA Expedition

Is climate change to blame?
Related: Earth

The Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution's research vessel Knorr docked before its departure on Sept. 6 to study salinity in the mid-Atlantic ocean. (NASA)

By Wynne Parry

Over the past 50 years, the salty parts of the oceans have become saltier and the fresh regions have become fresher, and the degree of change is greater than scientists can explain.

Researchers are heading out into one particularly salty ocean region, in the middle of the North Atlantic Ocean, in the hopes of better understanding what drives variation in salinity in the upper ocean.

Ultimately, they hope, research like this will offer insight on the dynamics behind the dramatic changes in the ocean's salt content.

Many oceanographers have a hunch about what is going on: Climate change, Ray Schmitt, a senior scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, told journalists during a news conference Wednesday (Sept. 5).

"Climate is changing all the time, and some of that change is due to natural variation," Schmitt said. "The 50-year trend we are talking about, most of us believe is really due to the general trend of global warming."

Salt & the global water cycle

This matters because the ocean is at the heart of the planet's water cycle: 86 percent of global evaporation and 78 percent of global precipitation occur over the ocean, according to NASA, the lead entity behind the project, called Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study (SPURS).

Over the ocean, more evaporation as compared to precipitation translates into saltier water. Meanwhile, in regions where precipitation is favored, water is fresher.

By tracking ocean salinity, researchers can better understand the global water cycle. Global warming is expected to intensify it, but current computer models do not predict the amount of change seen over the last 50 years, Schmitt said.

Aside from an increase in evaporation caused by warming, such factors as winds can also contribute to changes in salinity.

"We have a lot of questions about the basic physics we hope to resolve with this cruise," Schmitt said.

In addition to instruments attached to the research vessel itself, scientists plan to deploy a variety of drifting, remotely operated and moored sensors. European researchers are also visiting the site and collecting data.

Salinity data is also expected to come from the satellite-borne instrument, called Aquarius, launched about a year ago, as well as the global network of Argo floats, which measure temperature and salinity. [Satellite Gallery: Science from Above]

The research vessel Knorr departed Woods Hole, Mass., for the mid-Atlantic Thursday (Sept. 6). The researchers will spend about three weeks deploying their instruments, leaving some behind for when they return. Due to hurricanes Leslie and Michael, the vessel's captain decided to travel quickly to the east and then south to miss the worst of the weather on their way to the study site.

Ongoing work

The mid-Atlantic isn't the only area where researchers hope to study ocean salinity in detail.

"SPURS is named because spurs come in pairs," said Eric Lindstrom, a physical oceanography program scientist at NASA headquarters, explaining that researchers hope to do something similar in a low-salinity region, such as the Bay of Bengal or an area south of Hawaii.

While researchers think global climate change may be behind the changes in ocean salinity, changes like these are expected to have their own implications for climate. This is because ocean salinity also affects ocean circulation, and as a result, ocean temperatures, which have implications for weather.

Here's how it works: Compared with fresh water, salty water is heavier, and so more prone to sinking. Temperature has a similar effect, with warmth causing water to rise. Differences in salinity and temperature drive a slow-moving conveyor belt of ocean currents that encircles the planet. The Gulf Stream, which carries warm water across the Atlantic to Europe, is part of this conveyor belt.

It may work out that higher salinity in some regions counterbalances fresher water in others, Schmitt said: "It is a delicate balance and what we think now is it is not too likely the conveyer belt is going to shut down anytime soon."

Follow Wynne Parry on Twitter @Wynne_Parry or LiveScience @livescience. We're also on Facebook & Google+.

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The Reality of Climate Change: 10 Myths Busted
The World's Biggest Oceans and Seas

Copyright 2012 LiveScience, a TechMediaNetwork company. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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joemak5

Its a money grab for NASA with decline in space program. Next expedition will be inconclusive and require more funding...and the next...and the next.

September 10 2012 at 7:20 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Rosa

It's because the gap between Central and South America was blocked by underwater landslides after an earthquake years ago and interferes with the Gulf Stream current that should be moving up through the Gulf of Mexico, around Florida, and North up the Western Atlantic, around the Arctic Sea, and South down the Eastern Atlantic, around Africa, Asia, and so on, etc. The climate would change when the salinity of the oceans changes, just like putting salt on ice when you make homemade ice cream. If we check the average temperatures of fresh and salt water in Spring, Summer, Fall, and Winter, we would find that since the blockage to the Gulf Stream occurred, the average temperature of the air started to rise, along with the ocean temperatures. What about some of the countries and big beverage companies that harvest the ice at the Poles for fresh water? Something they've been doing for decades and it's affecting the ocean life, too.

September 10 2012 at 1:41 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
pugidmd

One problem is we don't know what the salinity changes were 500, 1,000 or 10,000 years ago, because we only recently developed the technology. Unfortunately what I don't hear is how the polar shifts have affected not only salinity but climate change.

September 10 2012 at 12:19 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
phil.smith2

What is also interesting is that when doing core samples while drilling in the Antarctica, an oil company found evidence of a rain forest. "As The World Turns"

September 10 2012 at 11:52 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Jalf

F'ing idiots at it again. I wonder how many sheeple are going to follow them this time. Global warming, now climate change and the newest, salty is getting saltier and fresher is getting fresher. F'ing dumb fu

September 10 2012 at 10:56 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to Jalf's comment
itacurubi

It's good to hear the opinion of someone so obviously trained and experienced in analytic thought. You physicists ought to comment more often. Statistical Thermodynamics?

September 10 2012 at 11:04 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
aripalda

I think you're the idiot who doesn't believe in science. If you boil salt water, water evaporates, the remaining water gets saltier, same thing happens when the temperature of the globe rises.

September 10 2012 at 11:11 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to aripalda's comment
Lorna Andoscia

That analogy only works if you have an airtight lid on the pan and the water is boiling; in which case you couldn't keep a lid on it. Water doesn't have to boil to evaporate. I mean, last I heard the ocean wasn't 212 degrees. And, unlike an open pan of water that allows vapor to escape, our atmosphere just doesn't go off into space.

Now that we have established that, take a half full bottle of salt water, cap it, and put it in the window on a hot sunny day. You will get precipitation as fresh water condenses and ends up back in the bottle. The level will not go down. The water will not get saltier; unless it gets a little hotter and more condensation is temporarily tied up in the condensing vapors. In the real world fresh water would also be tied up in the land as the precipitation falls and fills aquifers or slowly makes it way back to the sea; much as sponges attached above the water level would absorb water and drip excess water back into the sea.

Now, if you had the capability to examine the water without disturbing it in any way, you would see that the edges where the fresh condensation is running into the bottle would not be as salty as the middle. However, our earth is not undisturbed. We have tides, earthquakes, wind and volcanoes. The oceans have been sloshing around since there has been water on earth and will continue to do so. They just don't slosh on our time schedule. I mean, they are pretty big you know.

The bottom line is that warming is good for producing fertile habitable land. The Sahara Lakes; The Outback Aquifer; Living Valley California what a great world it will be for those who live long enough to experience global warming.

September 10 2012 at 1:04 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
phil.smith2

Earth, 4.54 BILLION years in the making and a natural cycle stuns them?

September 10 2012 at 10:32 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to phil.smith2's comment
aripalda

Global warming is a natural cycle, BUT WE ACCELERATED IT.

September 10 2012 at 11:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
sell100reliable

How can they say they can't explain this?!? A mystery???

Depletion of the ozone layer allow UV rays to reach the ocean and it takes away the current and salinity of the water. The life in the ocean will not survive under these changes.

Mystery? Yea right!

September 10 2012 at 10:16 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to sell100reliable's comment
brl131psu

i guess you haven't really read the opening line of this article. salt water is becoming saltier, fresh water is becoming fresher. life will always survive under these changes.

September 10 2012 at 10:36 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Lorna Andoscia

Fifty years of data is not enough to come to any valid conclusion as to why the oceans are experiencing change. Our weather is based on the various cyclic conditions of our planet, and different cycles are of different lengths. In weather terms, 50 years is a blink of the eye.

Our planet has gone through many periods of warming and cooling over time. From the cold periods where ice covered half of the planet to the warmer periods when vineyards flourished in Greenland. It is natural; and life, including humans, has adapted. In fact, humans flourished during the warmer periods. Why? Healthy crops meant healthy people. The warmer the planet is, the more evaporation takes place and precipitation will increase. Ice core samples have shown that the pole regions, that are currently considered deserts because it is too cold to snow, increase in depth during warm periods; more than offsetting the decrease in width. In previous warm periods, there is evidence that the ocean level was lower, as more water was frozen in the deep polar caps. Yes, the ocean currents will change and along with it wind currents, resulting in a more stable weather system. However, the weather will be erratic during the transitional period.

Also, a notable rise in northern temperatures does not necessarily translate into much of a rise in equatorial temperatures as higher evaporation levels results in a radiation shield of clouds. The result would be more habitable land, more fresh water, less need for heating fuel, rich air cleaning foliage, and an abundant food supply.

Global warming? Bring it on!

September 10 2012 at 10:07 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to Lorna Andoscia's comment
mentallag

anyone claiming to understand all of the implications of a rise or fall in average global temperatures is a fool.

the earth, in terms of human comprehension, is a very large system. it may not be as bad as the scientific community expects, it might also be worse.

the bottom line pretty much comes down to this; if you have a chance to possibly make a difference for the better, why not do it?

September 10 2012 at 4:12 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mentallag's comment
Lorna Andoscia

Well, since our world is "a very large system" I doubt that there is much we could do. And, as I said, why should we? Nature has a wonderful plan for a warm world full of fresh water and lush plant growth.

September 10 2012 at 4:58 PM Report abuse rate up rate down
torandersen

busy work, it's crazy there isn't a government on the planet that can resolve what has been done.. further its a _global warming_ shame none of these people, and organizations have the solution that I DO but not the backing to implement IT and it's going to lead to the extermination of all humankind with in a year.

September 10 2012 at 10:03 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
silverpawpa

This situation is a mystery wrapped in an enigma, regurgitated by the religion of global warming and swallowed by the pimped innocence of children forced fed the death of a species, Polar Bears, by unethical scientific trolls whose ability to hide the decline has become their best redeeming value.
If that statement pissed you off let me tell you a fifty-year truth that’s been force fed to you by those charlatans.
Back in the late sixties and early seventies the research vessels in the Gulf of Mexico found what they called “The Dead Zone.’ That so-called dead zone was in fact two different zones, one east of the Mississippi River and one west of the river. Those zones have been researched every year since and found to have grown year after year from farm runoff.
I spent 60 years in the Gulf of Mexico and have been a ‘Highliner’ meaning one of the better fishermen to ply Gulf waters. Over those years I was one of the fishermen who produced thousands of tons of product not pounds. What I’ve seen National Geographic would have paid good money for but other sights would turn your stomach or at best you’d be mad as hell about.
One of the things that makes me mad as hell is, you guessed it, the dead zone. Why, you ask? Well, that dead zone isn’t dead. In fact on the very trip I found out about the finding of the dead zone, the very vessel that reported its existence was taking samples less that two miles from where I was making ten ton tows of fish for the Quaker Oats pet food plant in Pascagoula, MS.
On completion of that trip the cook on the MV Oregon, NMFS vessel stationed at the MS lab, asked if I had heard about the Dead Zone in the Gulf? It was then that he told me the doctors who discovered the zone was in the Directors office so I decided to go to Harvey’s office. Back then NMFS and Quaker Oats were next-door neighbors and I knew most of the people working there.
That day I made a monkey out of the findings but those issues stayed in that office and articles appeared in science journals broadcasting half truths if not outright lies and its found funding to keep unethical doctors and universities in the business of lying to anyone who listens. From that day to today the very zone NMFS calls a dead zone is fished and product harvested from waters that scientist say nothing can live in that is very much alive. Keep in mind that was around fifty years ago and that oxygen starved water has nurtured fish, crabs and shrimp that find a way to the tables of this nation and stomachs of Americans. Consumers of offshore caught fish and shrimp, from the Gulf of Mexico, haven’t been eating fifty-year-old dead and rotted product but have been eating fresh tasty seafood from waters scientist told you nothing could live in yet is thriving with the very species that I caught fifty years ago. Today my Son-in-law takes charters to those same waters who catch their limits of species that thrive and that catch limits should be increased because fishermen meet the quota in two or three days.
Call me a liar if it makes you feel better but production records have been constant for a hundred years from waters that half that time could not sustain life according to the very people who tell you Global warming is turning the worlds waters to acid and now pure salt but remember that’s without oxygen.

September 10 2012 at 9:42 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to silverpawpa's comment
mentallag

cool anecdotal evidence, i guess.

September 10 2012 at 4:08 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
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