Supercomputer Shows How Ocean Captures Carbon

C. Coimbra photo

Editor’s Note: Highlighting by Neptune 911

By Staci Matlock
The New Mexican
Los Alamos scientists recently used a supercomputer to paint a vibrant picture of how ocean eddies move heat and capture carbon from the atmosphere.

The picture shows “the beauty of the ocean,” said scientist Todd Ringler, who helped develop the computer simulation of the eddies.

More than a work of art, the ocean eddies modeled by Ringler and seven other members of the Climate, Ocean and Sea Ice Modeling team can help climate scientists and oceanographers track changes within the oceans.

The ocean has its own weather, similar to the atmosphere, Ringler said. “The weather of the ocean plays an important role in the climate of the Earth,” he said.

Eddies, which can form in air or water, are a big part of the ocean weather. They occur when water flows break around an object, such as a rock in a river, or when an ocean current is crunched into a whirlpool-like pattern. In the oceans, eddies can range in size from a few feet to many miles wide.

Scientists gather data about the size and depth of these eddies to create the simulations.

In the team’s recent eddy simulation, the Gulf Stream creates a barrier between warm tropical waters, shown as red, and the colder polar waters in blue. “The warm Gulf Stream current, that we can think of as the jet stream, travels up the East Coast, then heads into the Atlantic Ocean where large eddies, that we can think of as storms, are generated,” Ringler said.

Eddies act as mixing spoons in the ocean, moving nutrients and warm or cold water around.


LANL scientists’ ocean images help track changes and carbon capture

In the ocean, warmer, lighter water is near the top. Colder, denser water is on the bottom. “But it’s not layered like a cake. It’s tilted,” Ringler said. “The cold water at the surface of the [North and South Poles] is the deep water at the equator. Eddies move the water on the surface and allow water on the surface to communicate with water on the bottom.”

“These ocean storms move heat and and carbon from the atmosphere into deep ocean [two to four miles down],” he added. “This happens very, very slowly, but over the next 1,000 years, much of the fossil fuel carbon emissions will end up in the deep ocean. Ocean eddies make that happen.”

As the ocean waters capture carbon, eddies help move the carbon to the deep ocean where it will stay, for awhile, but not forever. “Ultimately, what will happen is the bottom of the ocean will warm up and give the heat back to the atmosphere,” he said.

Plume from coal-fired power plant. C.Coimbra photo

Plume from coal-fired power plant. C.Coimbra photo

The ocean sink for carbon won’t be able to keep up with what humans and nature are emitting. “Carbon emissions from fossil-fuel burning is far greater than capacity of oceans to take it up. We are sort of doubling the carbon in the atmosphere on a time scale of 100 years,” he said. “The carbon uptake into the ocean is on the scale of 1,000 years or 10,000 years.”

Contact Staci Matlock at 986-3055 or Follow her on Twitter @StaciMatlock.

Categories: Climate Change, Condition of Oceans, Fossil Fuel

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