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Video: Tracing Ocean Salinity for Global Climate Models

The video animation could help climate researchers explore how factors such as rising carbon dioxide levels alter the ocean’s ability to transport heat. (Photo by Nick Donnoli, Princeton Office of Communications)

In this visualization, ocean temperatures and salinity are tracked over the course of a year. Based on data from global climate models, these visualizations aid our understanding of the physical processes that create the Earth’s climate, and inform predictions about future changes in climate. The video was created by researchers at Princeton University, the U.S. Department of Energy’s Princeton Plasma Physics Laboratory, and the U.S. Department of Commerce’s National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory.

“The process starts when tropical waters soak up the sun’s heat. Ocean currents push heated water toward the poles, warming not only the northern and southern oceans but also the air and land. This “ocean heat engine” makes northern Europe considerably more habitable than it otherwise would be. In the North Atlantic, warm water from the tropics rides the Gulfstream extension northward toward the Norwegian Sea and mixes with cold water from the Arctic. Cold water is denser than warm water, so the mixed water sinks and makes its way eventually southward, bringing nutrients to fisheries off the coast of North America. The water’s saltiness, or salinity, plays a significant role in this ocean heat engine, Harrison said. Salt makes the water denser, helping it to sink. As the atmosphere warms due to global climate change, melting ice sheets have the potential to release tremendous amounts of fresh water into the oceans.”

“Climate visualizations can help researchers see how the influx of fresh water affects global ocean circulation over time. The animation reveals how factors like evaporation, rainfall and river runoff affect salinity. For example, the Mediterranean Sea, which lies in an arid region and has only a narrow outlet, is much saltier than the nearby Atlantic Ocean. In contrast, over 250 rivers flow into the Baltic Sea between mainland Europe and Scandinavia, so the sea is about seven-times less salty than the Atlantic Ocean.”

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