Ocean Currents

Successful Ocean-Monitoring Satellite Mission Ends

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Esprit Smith, Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, Calif.
esprit.smith@jpl.nasa.gov

Pascale Bresson, CNES, Paris, France
pascale.bresson@cnes.fr

Raphaël Sart, CNES, Paris, France
raphael.sart@cnes.fr

John Leslie, NOAA National Environmental Satellite and Information Service, Silver Spring, Md.
john.leslie@noaa.gov

Neil Fletcher. EUMETSAT, Darmstadt, Germany
neil.fletcher@eumetsat.int

 

JASON2-2-16
Jason-2/OSTM contributed to a long-term record of global sea levels. This image shows areas in the Pacific Ocean where sea levels were lower (blues) or higher (reds) than normal during the first week of January 2018. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

 

The Jason-2/Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM), the third in a U.S.-European series of satellite missions designed to measure sea surface height, successfully ended its science mission on Oct. 1. NASA and its mission partners made the decision to end the mission after detecting deterioration in the spacecraft’s power system.

Jason-2/OSTM, a joint NASA mission with the French space agency Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES), the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), and the European Organisation for the Exploitation of Meteorological Satellites (EUMETSAT), launched in June 2008. The mission extended the long-term record of sea surface height measurements started by the NASA-CNES TOPEX/Poseidon and Jason-1 missions. Jason-2/OSTM’s 11-year lifetime well exceeded its three-year design life. These measurements are being continued by its successor, Jason-3, launched in 2016.

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NASA Study Solves Two Mysteries About Wobbling Earth

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Earth does not always spin on an axis running through its poles. Instead, it wobbles irregularly over time, drifting toward North America throughout most of the 20th Century (green arrow). That direction has changed drastically due to changes in water mass on Earth. Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech


Using
satellite data on how water moves around Earth, NASA scientists have solved two mysteries about wobbles in the planet’s rotation — one new and one more than a century old. The research may help improve our knowledge of past and future climate. 

Although a desktop globe always spins smoothly around the axis running through its north and south poles, a real planet wobbles. Earth’s spin axis drifts slowly around the poles; the farthest away it has wobbled since observations began is 37 feet (12 meters). These wobbles don’t affect our daily life, but they must be taken into account to get accurate results from GPS, Earth-observing satellites and observatories on the ground. 

In a paper ‘Climate–Driven Polar Motion: 2003–2015 (PDF)‘ published today in Science Advances, Surendra Adhikari and Erik Ivins of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, researched how the movement of water around the world contributes to Earth’s rotational wobbles. Earlier studies have pinpointed many connections between processes on Earth’s surface or interior and our planet’s wandering ways. For example, Earth’s mantle is still readjusting to the loss of ice on North America after the last ice age, and the reduced mass beneath that continent pulls the spin axis toward Canada at the rate of a few inches each year. But some motions are still puzzling.


A Sharp Turn To The East

Before about 2000, Earth’s spin axis was drifting toward Canada (green arrow, left globe). JPL scientists calculated the effect of changes in water mass in different regions (center globe) in pulling the direction of drift eastward and speeding the rate (right globe). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

Around the year 2000, Earth’s spin axis took an abrupt turn toward the east and is now drifting almost twice as fast as before, at a rate of almost 7 inches (17 centimeters) a year. “It’s no longer moving toward Hudson Bay, but instead toward the British Isles,” said Adhikari. “That’s a massive swing.” Adhikari and Ivins set out to explain this unexpected change.

Scientists have suggested that the loss of mass from Greenland and Antarctica’s rapidly melting ice sheet could be causing the eastward shift of the spin axis. The JPL scientists assessed this idea using observations from the NASA/German Aerospace Center Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) satellites, which provide a monthly record of changes in mass around Earth. Those changes are largely caused by movements of water through everyday processes such as accumulating snowpack and groundwater depletion. They calculated how much mass was involved in water cycling between Earth’s land areas and its oceans from 2003 to 2015, and the extent to which the mass losses and gains pulled and pushed on the spin axis.

Adhikari and Ivins’ calculations showed that the changes in Greenland alone do not generate the gigantic amount of energy needed to pull the spin axis as far as it has shifted. In the Southern Hemisphere, ice mass loss from West Antarctica is pulling, and ice mass gain in East Antarctica is pushing, Earth’s spin axis in the same direction that Greenland is pulling it from the north, but the combined effect is still not enough to explain the speedup and new direction. Something east of Greenland has to be exerting an additional pull.

The researchers found the answer in Eurasia. 

“The bulk of the answer is a deficit of water in Eurasia: the Indian subcontinent and the Caspian Sea area,” Adhikari said. 

The finding was a surprise. This region has lost water mass due to depletion of aquifers and drought, but the loss is nowhere near as great as the change in the ice sheets. 

So why did the smaller loss have such a strong effect? The researchers say:

“It’s because the spin axis is very sensitive to changes occurring around 45 degrees latitude, both north and south. “This is well explained in the theory of rotating objects,” Adhikari explained. “That’s why changes in the Indian subcontinent, for example, are so important.””


New Insight on an Old Wobble
In the process of solving this recent mystery, the researchers unexpectedly came up with a promising new solution to a very old

The relationship between continental water mass and the east-west wobble in Earth’s spin axis. Losses of water from Eurasia correspond to eastward swings in the general direction of the spin axis (top), and Eurasian gains push the spin axis westward (bottom). Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

problem, as well. One particular wobble in Earth’s rotation has perplexed scientists since observations began in 1899. Every six to 14 years, the spin axis wobbles about 20 to 60 inches (0.5 to 1.5 meters) either east or west of its general direction of drift. “Despite tremendous theoretical and modeling efforts, no plausible mechanism has been put forward that could explain this enigmatic oscillation,” Adhikari said.

Lining up a graph of the east-west wobble during the period when GRACE data were available against a graph of changes in continental water storage for the same period, the JPL scientists spotted a startling similarity between the two. Changes in polar ice appeared to have no relationship to the wobble — only changes in water on land. Dry years in Eurasia, for example, corresponded to eastward swings, while wet years corresponded to westward swings.

When the researchers input the GRACE observations on changes in land water mass from April 2002 to March 2015 into classic physics equations that predict pole positions, they found that the results matched the observed east-west wobble very closely. “This is much more than a simple correlation,” coauthor Ivins said. “We have isolated the cause.”

The discovery raises the possibility that the 115-year record of east-west wobbles in Earth’s spin axis may, in fact, be a remarkably good record of changes in land water storage. “That could tell us something about past climate — whether the intensity of drought or wetness has amplified over time, and in which locations,” said Adhikari. 

“Historical records of polar motion are both globally comprehensive in their sensitivity and extraordinarily accurate,” said Ivins. “Our study shows that this legacy data set can be used to leverage vital information about changes in continental water storage and ice sheets over time.”

GRACE is a joint NASA mission with the German Aerospace Center (DLR) and the German Research Center for Geosciences (GFZ), in partnership with the University of Texas at Austin. For more information on the mission, visit: http://grace.jpl.nasa.gov or http://www.csr.utexas.edu/grace

NASA uses the vantage point of space to increase our understanding of our home planet, improve lives and safeguard our future. NASA develops new ways to observe and study Earth’s interconnected natural systems with long-term data records. The agency freely shares this unique knowledge and works with institutions around the world to gain new insights into how our planet is changing.

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/earth

A Still-Growing El Niño Set to Bear Down on US

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The latest satellite image of Pacific sea surface heights from Jason-2 (left) differs slightly from one 18 years ago from Topex/Poseidon (right). In Dec. 1997, sea surface height was more intense and peaked in November. This year the area of high sea levels is less intense but considerably broader. (Credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech)

 


The current strong El Niño brewing in the Pacific Ocean shows no signs of waning, as seen in the latest satellite image from the U.S./European Ocean Surface Topography Mission (OSTM)/Jason-2 mission. 

El Niño 2015 has already created weather chaos around the world. Over the next few months, forecasters expect the United States to feel its impacts as well. 

The latest Jason-2 image bears a striking resemblance to one from December 1997, by Jason-2’s predecessor, the NASA/Centre National d’Etudes Spatiales (CNES) Topex/Poseidon mission, during the last large El Niño event. Both reflect the classic pattern of a fully developed El Niño. The images can be viewed at:

http://sealevel.jpl.nasa.gov/elnino2015/index.html

The images show nearly identical, unusually high sea surface heights along the equator in the central and eastern Pacific: the signature of a big and powerful El Niño. Higher-than-normal sea surface heights are an indication that a thick layer of warm water is present.

El Niños are triggered when the steady, westward-blowing trade winds in the Pacific weaken or even reverse direction, triggering a dramatic warming of the upper ocean in the central and eastern tropical Pacific. Clouds and storms follow the warm water, pumping heat and moisture high into the overlying atmosphere. These changes alter jet stream paths and affect storm tracks all over the world.

This year’s El Niño has caused the warm water layer that is normally piled up around Australia and Indonesia to thin dramatically, while in the eastern tropical Pacific, the normally cool surface waters are blanketed with a thick layer of warm water. This massive redistribution of heat causes ocean temperatures to rise from the central Pacific to the Americas. It has sapped Southeast Asia’s rain in the process, reducing rainfall over Indonesia and contributing to the growth of massive wildfires that have blanketed the region in choking smoke. 

El Niño is also implicated in Indian heat waves caused by delayed monsoon rains, as well as Pacific island sea level drops, widespread coral bleaching that is damaging coral reefs, droughts in South Africa, flooding in South America and a record-breaking hurricane season in the eastern tropical Pacific. Around the world, production of rice, wheat, coffee and other crops has been hit hard by droughts and floods, leading to higher prices. 

In the United States, many of El Niño’s biggest impacts are expected in early 2016. Forecasters at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration favor an El Niño-induced shift in weather patterns to begin in the near future, ushering in several months of relatively cool and wet conditions across the southern United States, and relatively warm and dry conditions over the northern United States. The latest El Niño forecast from NOAA’s Climate Prediction Center is at: http://www.cpc.ncep.noaa.gov/

While scientists still do not know precisely how the current El Niño will affect the United States, the last large El Niño in 1997-98 was a wild ride for most of the nation. The “Great Ice Storm” of January 1998 crippled northern New England and southeastern Canada, but overall, the northern tier of the United States experienced long periods of mild weather and meager snowfall. Meanwhile, across the southern United States, a steady convoy of storms slammed most of California, moved east into the Southwest, drenched Texas and — pumped up by the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico — wreaked havoc along the Gulf Coast, particularly in Florida. 

“In 2014, the current El Niño teased us — wavering off and on,” said Josh Willis, project scientist for the Jason missions at JPL. “But in early 2015, atmospheric conditions changed, and El Niño steadily expanded in the central and eastern Pacific. Although the sea surface height signal in 1997 was more intense and peaked in November of that year, in 2015, the area of high sea levels is larger. This could mean we have not yet seen the peak of this El Niño.”

During normal, non-El Niño conditions, the amount of warm water in the western equatorial Pacific is so large that sea levels are about 20 inches (50 centimeters) higher in the western Pacific than in the eastern Pacific. “You can see it in the latest Jason-2 image of the Pacific,” said Willis. “The 8-inch [20-centimeter] drop in the west, coupled with the 10-inch [25-centimeter] rise in the east, has completely wiped out the tilt in sea level we usually have along the equator.”

The new Jason-2 image shows that the amount of extra-warm surface water from the current El Niño (depicted in red and white shades) has continuously increased, especially in the eastern Pacific within 10 degrees latitude north and south of the equator. In the western Pacific, the area of low sea level (blue and purple) has decreased somewhat from late October. The white and red areas indicate unusual patterns of heat storage. In the white areas, the sea surface is between 6 and 10 inches (15 to 25 centimeters) above normal, while in the red areas, it is about 4 inches (10 centimeters) above normal. The green areas indicate normal conditions. The height of the ocean water relates, in part, to its temperature, and is an indicator of the amount of heat stored in the ocean below. 

Within this area, surface temperatures are greater than 86 degrees Fahrenheit (30 degrees Celsius) in the central equatorial Pacific and near 70 degrees Fahrenheit (21 degrees Celsius) off the coast of the Americas. This El Niño signal encompasses a surface area of 6 million square miles (16 million square kilometers) — more than twice as big as the continental United States. 

While no one can predict the exact timing or intensity of U.S. El Niño impacts, for drought-stricken California and the U.S. West, it’s expected to bring some relief. 

“The water story for much of the American West over most of the past decade has been dominated by punishing drought,” said JPL climatologist Bill Patzert. “Reservoir levels have fallen to record or near-record lows, while groundwater tables have dropped dangerously in many areas. Now we’re preparing to see the flip side of nature’s water cycle — the arrival of steady, heavy rains and snowfall.” 

In 1982-83 and 1997-98, large El Niños delivered about twice the average amount of rainfall to Southern California, along with mudslides, floods, high winds, lightning strikes and high surf. But Patzert cautioned that El Niño events are not drought busters. “Over the long haul, big El Niños are infrequent and supply only seven percent of California’s water,” he said.

“Looking ahead to summer, we might not be celebrating the demise of this El Niño,” cautioned Patzert. “It could be followed by a La Niña, which could bring roughly opposite effects to the world’s weather.” 

La Niñas are essentially the opposite of El Niño conditions. During a La Niña episode, trade winds are stronger than normal, and the cold water that normally exists along the coast of South America extends to the central equatorial Pacific. La Niña episodes change global weather patterns and are associated with less moisture in the air over cooler ocean waters. This results in less rain along the coasts of North and South America and along the central and eastern equatorial Pacific, and more rain in the far Western Pacific.

El Niño events are part of the long-term, evolving state of global climate, for which measurements of sea surface height are a key indicator. 

For an animation of the evolution of the 2015 and 1997 El Niños, visit: https://sealevel.jpl.nasa.gov/elnino2015/2015-animated.gif

For more information on how NASA studies El Niño, visit: http://climatesciences.jpl.nasa.gov/enso

To learn more about NASA’s satellite altimetry programs, visit: http://sealevel.jpl.nasa.gov

For more information about NASA’s Earth science activities, visit: http://www.nasa.gov/earth

 

NASA Finds New Way to Track Ocean Currents from Space

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NASA’s GRACE satellites (artist’s concept) measured Atlantic Ocean bottom pressure as an indicator of deep ocean current speed. In 2009, this pattern of above-average (blue) and below-average (red) seafloor pressure revealed a temporary slowing of the deep currents. Image credit: NASA/JPL-Caltech

A team of NASA and university scientists has developed a new way to use satellite measurements to track changes in Atlantic Ocean currents, which are a driving force in global climate. The finding opens a path to better monitoring and understanding of how ocean circulation is changing and what the changes may mean for future climate.

In the Atlantic, currents at the ocean surface, such as the Gulf Stream, carry sun-warmed water from the tropics northeastward. As the water moves through colder regions, it sheds its heat. By the time it gets to Greenland, it’s so cold and dense that it sinks a couple of miles down into the ocean depths. There it turns and flows back south. This open loop of shallow and deep currents is known to oceanographers as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) — part of the “conveyor belt” of ocean currents circulating water, heat and nutrients around the globe and affecting climate.

Because the AMOC moves so much heat, any change in it is likely to be an important indicator of how our planet is responding to warming caused by increasing greenhouse gases. In the last decade, a few isolated measurements have suggested that the AMOC is slowing down and moving less water. Many researchers are expecting the current to weaken as a consequence of global warming, but natural variations may also be involved. To better understand what is going on, scientists would like to have consistent observations over time that cover the entire Atlantic

“This [new] satellite approach allows us to improve projections of future changes and — quite literally — get to the bottom of what drives ocean current changes,” said Felix Landerer of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Pasadena, California, who led the research team.

Landerer and his colleagues used data from the twin satellites of NASA’s Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment (GRACE) mission. Launched in 2002, GRACE provides a monthly record of tiny changes in Earth’s gravitational field, caused by changes in the amount of mass below the satellites. The mass of Earth’s land surfaces doesn’t change much over the course of a month; but the mass of water on or near Earth’s surface does, for example, as ice sheets melt and water is pumped from underground aquifers. GRACE has proven invaluable in tracking these changes.

At the bottom of the atmosphere — on Earth’s surface — changes in air pressure (a measure of the mass of the air) tell us about flowing air, or wind. At the bottom of the ocean, changes in pressure tell us about flowing water, or currents. Landerer and his team developed a way to isolate in the GRACE gravity data the signal of tiny pressure differences at the ocean bottom that are caused by changes in the deep ocean currents.

“We’ve wanted to observe this phenomenon with GRACE since we launched 13 years ago, but it took us this long to figure out how to squeeze the information out of the data stream,” said Michael Watkins, director of the Center for Space Research at the University of Texas at Austin, former GRACE project scientist and a co-author of the study.

The squeezing process required some very advanced data processing, but not as many data points as one might think. “In principle, you’d think you’d have to measure every 10 yards or so across the ocean to know the whole flow,” Landerer explained. “But in fact, if you can measure the farthest eastern and western points very accurately, that’s all you need to know how much water is flowing north and south in the entire Atlantic at that section. That theory has long been known and is exploited in buoy networks, but this is the first time we’ve been able to do it successfully from space.”

The new measurements agreed well with estimates from a network of ocean buoys that span the Atlantic Ocean near 26 degrees north latitude, operated by the Rapid Climate Change (RAPID) group at the U.K.’s National Oceanography Centre, Southampton. The agreement gives the researchers confidence that the technique can be expanded to provide estimates throughout the Atlantic. In fact, the GRACE measurements showed that a significant weakening in the overturning circulation, which the buoys recorded in the winter of 2009-10, extended several thousand miles north and south of the buoys’ latitude.

Gerard McCarthy, a research scientist in the RAPID group who was not involved with the study, said, “The results highlight synergies between [direct measurements] like [those from] RAPID and remote sensing — all the more important given the rapid and surprising changes occurring in the North Atlantic at the present time.” Eric Lindstrom, NASA’s Physical Oceanography Program manager at the agency’s headquarters in Washington, pointed out, “It’s awesome that GRACE can see variations of deep water transport, [but] this signal might never have been detected or verified without the RAPID array. We will continue to need both in situ and space-based systems to monitor the subtle but significant variations of the ocean circulation.”

A paper in the journal Geophysical Research Letters describing the new technique and first results is available online in prepublication form: http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/10.1002/2015GL065730/abstract?campaign=wolacceptedarticle