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Deep ocean turbulence impacts carbon storage

Large underwater waves affect the ocean’s ability to store carbon, according to new research led by the University of Cambridge. The study, published in the journal AGU Advances, details the effect that interior ocean turbulence has in transporting heat and carbon. While the existence of these giant waves is well known, their effect on climate change has been unexplored until now. 

Ocean circulation patterns carry warm tropical water from the tropics to the cooler North Atlantic, where the water cools, sinks, and returns south via the deep ocean. This circulation stores carbon deep in the ocean for thousands of years. However, the ocean’s interior is a dynamic environment.

“If you were to take a picture of the ocean interior, you would see a lot of complex dynamics at work,” explained study first author Dr. Laura Cimoli. “Beneath the surface of the water, there are jets, currents, and waves – in the deep ocean, these waves can be up to 500 meters high, but they break just like a wave on a beach.”

Turbulence caused by these giant waves deep in the ocean impact heat and carbon transport by causing the different layers of the ocean to mix, and researchers say these effects should be included in climate models.

“Climate models do account for turbulence, but mostly in how it affects ocean circulation,” said Dr. Cimoli. “But we’ve found that turbulence is vital in its own right, and plays a key role in how much carbon and heat gets absorbed by the ocean, and where it gets stored.”

“Many climate models have an overly simplistic representation of the role of micro-scale turbulence, but we’ve shown it’s significant and should be treated with more care,” added study co-author Dr. Ali Mashayek. “For example, turbulence and its role in ocean circulation exerts a control over how much anthropogenic heat reaches the Antarctic Ice Sheet, and the timescale on which that happens.”

The researchers say this work calls for a more careful representation of turbulence-induced vertical mixing within the Atlantic Ocean in climate models. They are calling for the installation of turbulence sensors to help scientists make more accurate predictions.

By Erin Moody, Staff Writer

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