If you want to know how fast the Earth is warming, you have to measure how fast the oceans are heating up.
Sounds easy enough at first, but when you recognize that the oceans are vast (and deep) you can begin to appreciate the difficulties. How can we get enough measurements, at enough locations, and enough depths, to measure the oceans’ temperatures? Not only that, but since climate change is a long-term trend, it means there will be a need to measure ocean temperature changes over many years and decades. We really want to know how fast the oceans’ temperatures are changing over long duration.
But that isn’t all. Throughout the years, we have made changes to the measurement methods. From old canvas buckets that were dipped into waters which were then measured, to insulated buckets, to temperature probes on the hulls of ships, devices that would be dropped into deep ocean waters, and now the ARGO fleet, which is approximately 3,000 autonomous devices that are more-or-less equally distributed across the oceans. Each of these devices measures temperatures a little differently; they have biases. As you change from one set of instruments to another, you might see a cooling or warming effect related to the change in instruments, not because the water temperatures are changing.
The seeming intractability of this problem is why I began studying it a few years ago. I have worked with colleagues to answer a very specific equation related to one of the most commonly employed ocean measurement devices, the eXpendable BathyThermograph (or XBT for short). For many years, these devices formed the backbone of ocean temperature measurements. My colleagues and I want to ensure measurements from XBTs are as accurate as possible.
These devices are used by navies to measure the depth of the thermocline. While that was their original mission, climate scientists have adopted the devices for determining long-term ocean temperature changes. The problem is that the devices are relatively simple; they are freely dropped into ocean waters. As they descend, like a spinning torpedo, they unwind a wire connected to a computer system on-board the ship. A sensor in the probe sends temperature information to the computer system and a recording is made. When the device expends its wire, the wire breaks and the device continues to fall until it impacts the ocean floor.
Extensive experiments have shown that our expectations of probe speed is suitable in areas where the ocean water is warm. But, what about Arctic regions? There, where water is cold, the water has a higher viscosity (and consequently drag force). We wanted to know whether we could correct that archive of ocean temperature measurements to account for measurements made in cold waters. To solve this problem, I teamed up with world-class scientists Dr. Lijing Cheng and Rebecca Cowley.
Lijing Cheng is a rapidly rising international scientist from the Chinese Academy of Sciences. He is currently producing some of the best research on the Earth’s energy imbalance.
Rebecca Cowley is a data expert from CSIRO in Australia. Her group is recognized as among the best in ocean heat content measurements and data quality.
The article was just published by the American Society of Meteorology and can be found here.
Source: The Guardian UK