Study uncovers new evidence for assessing tsunami risk from very large volcanic island landslides

A core is extracted from the seabed. -  Russell Wynn
A core is extracted from the seabed. – Russell Wynn

The risk posed by tsunami waves generated by Canary Island landslides may need to be re-evaluated, according to researchers at the National Oceanography Centre. Their findings suggest that these landslides result in smaller tsunami waves than previously thought by some authors, because of the processes involved.

The researchers used the geological record from deep marine sediment cores to build a history of regional landslide activity over the last 1.5 million years. They found that each large-scale landslide event released material into the ocean in stages, rather than simultaneously as previously thought.

The findings – reported recently in the scientific journal Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems – can be used to inform risk assessment from landslide-generated tsunamis in the area, as well as mitigation strategies to defend human populations and infrastructure against these natural hazards. The study also concluded that volcanic activity could be a pre-condition to major landslide events in the region.

The main factor influencing the amplitude of a landslide-generated tsunami is the volume of material sliding into the ocean. Previous efforts, which have assessed landslide volumes, have assumed that the entire landslide volume breaks away and enters the ocean as a single block. Such studies – and subsequent media coverage – have suggested an event could generate a ‘megatsunami’ so big that it would travel across the Atlantic Ocean and devastate the east coast of the US, as well as parts of southern England.

The recent findings shed doubt on this theory. Instead of a single block failure, the landslides in the past have occurred in multiple stages, reducing the volumes entering the sea, and thereby producing smaller tsunami waves. Lead author Dr James Hunt explains: “If you drop a block of soap into a bath full of water, it makes a relatively big splash. But if you break it up into smaller pieces and drop it in bit by bit, the ripples in the bath water are smaller.”

The scientists were able to identify this mechanism from the deposits of underwater sediment flows called turbidity currents, which form as the landslide mixes with surrounding seawater. Their deposits, known as ‘turbidites’, were collected from an area of the seafloor hundreds of miles away from the islands. Turbidites provide a record of landslide history because they form from the material that slides down the island slopes into the ocean, breaks up and eventually settles on this flatter, deeper part of the seafloor.

However, the scientists could not assume that multistage failure necessarily results in less devastating tsunamis – the stages need to occur with enough time in between so that the resulting waves do not compound each other. “If you drop the smaller pieces of soap in one by one but in very quick succession, you can still generate a large wave,” says Dr Hunt.

Between the layers of sand deposited by the landslides, the team found mud, providing evidence that the stages of failure occurred some time apart. This is because mud particles are so fine that they most likely take weeks to settle out in the ocean, and even longer to form a layer that would be resistant enough to withstand a layer of sand moving over the top of it.

While the authors suggest that the tsunamis were not as big as originally thought, they state that tsunamis are a threat that the UK should be taking seriously. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is investing in a major programme looking at the risk of tsunamis from Arctic landslides as part of the Arctic Research Programme, of which NOC is the lead collaborator. The EU have also just funded a £6 million FP7 project called ASTARTE, looking at tsunami risk and resilience on the European North Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, of which NOC is a partner.

The current study was funded by NERC, through a NOC studentship.

Study uncovers new evidence for assessing tsunami risk from very large volcanic island landslides

A core is extracted from the seabed. -  Russell Wynn
A core is extracted from the seabed. – Russell Wynn

The risk posed by tsunami waves generated by Canary Island landslides may need to be re-evaluated, according to researchers at the National Oceanography Centre. Their findings suggest that these landslides result in smaller tsunami waves than previously thought by some authors, because of the processes involved.

The researchers used the geological record from deep marine sediment cores to build a history of regional landslide activity over the last 1.5 million years. They found that each large-scale landslide event released material into the ocean in stages, rather than simultaneously as previously thought.

The findings – reported recently in the scientific journal Geochemistry Geophysics Geosystems – can be used to inform risk assessment from landslide-generated tsunamis in the area, as well as mitigation strategies to defend human populations and infrastructure against these natural hazards. The study also concluded that volcanic activity could be a pre-condition to major landslide events in the region.

The main factor influencing the amplitude of a landslide-generated tsunami is the volume of material sliding into the ocean. Previous efforts, which have assessed landslide volumes, have assumed that the entire landslide volume breaks away and enters the ocean as a single block. Such studies – and subsequent media coverage – have suggested an event could generate a ‘megatsunami’ so big that it would travel across the Atlantic Ocean and devastate the east coast of the US, as well as parts of southern England.

The recent findings shed doubt on this theory. Instead of a single block failure, the landslides in the past have occurred in multiple stages, reducing the volumes entering the sea, and thereby producing smaller tsunami waves. Lead author Dr James Hunt explains: “If you drop a block of soap into a bath full of water, it makes a relatively big splash. But if you break it up into smaller pieces and drop it in bit by bit, the ripples in the bath water are smaller.”

The scientists were able to identify this mechanism from the deposits of underwater sediment flows called turbidity currents, which form as the landslide mixes with surrounding seawater. Their deposits, known as ‘turbidites’, were collected from an area of the seafloor hundreds of miles away from the islands. Turbidites provide a record of landslide history because they form from the material that slides down the island slopes into the ocean, breaks up and eventually settles on this flatter, deeper part of the seafloor.

However, the scientists could not assume that multistage failure necessarily results in less devastating tsunamis – the stages need to occur with enough time in between so that the resulting waves do not compound each other. “If you drop the smaller pieces of soap in one by one but in very quick succession, you can still generate a large wave,” says Dr Hunt.

Between the layers of sand deposited by the landslides, the team found mud, providing evidence that the stages of failure occurred some time apart. This is because mud particles are so fine that they most likely take weeks to settle out in the ocean, and even longer to form a layer that would be resistant enough to withstand a layer of sand moving over the top of it.

While the authors suggest that the tsunamis were not as big as originally thought, they state that tsunamis are a threat that the UK should be taking seriously. The Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) is investing in a major programme looking at the risk of tsunamis from Arctic landslides as part of the Arctic Research Programme, of which NOC is the lead collaborator. The EU have also just funded a £6 million FP7 project called ASTARTE, looking at tsunami risk and resilience on the European North Atlantic and Mediterranean coasts, of which NOC is a partner.

The current study was funded by NERC, through a NOC studentship.

New ‘embryonic’ subduction zone found

A new subduction zone forming off the coast of Portugal heralds the beginning of a cycle that will see the Atlantic Ocean close as continental Europe moves closer to America.

Published in Geology, new research led by Monash University geologists has detected the first evidence that a passive margin in the Atlantic ocean is becoming active. Subduction zones, such as the one beginning near Iberia, are areas where one of the tectonic plates that cover the Earth’s surface dives beneath another plate into the mantle – the layer just below the crust.

Lead author Dr João Duarte, from the School of Geosciences said the team mapped the ocean floor and found it was beginning to fracture, indicating tectonic activity around the apparently passive South West Iberia plate margin.

“What we have detected is the very beginnings of an active margin – it’s like an embryonic subduction zone,” Dr Duarte said.

“Significant earthquake activity, including the 1755 quake which devastated Lisbon, indicated that there might be convergent tectonic movement in the area. For the first time, we have been able to provide not only evidences that this is indeed the case, but also a consistent driving mechanism.”

The incipient subduction in the Iberian zone could signal the start of a new phase of the Wilson Cycle – where plate movements break up supercontinents, like Pangaea, and open oceans, stabilise and then form new subduction zones which close the oceans and bring the scattered continents back together.

This break-up and reformation of supercontinents has happened at least three times, over more than four billion years, on Earth. The Iberian subduction will gradually pull Iberia towards the United States over approximately 220 million years.

The findings provide a unique opportunity to observe a passive margin becoming active – a process that will take around 20 million years. Even at this early phase the site will yield data that is crucial to refining the geodynamic models.

“Understanding these processes will certainly provide new insights on how subduction zones may have initiated in the past and how oceans start to close,” Dr Duarte said.

New ‘embryonic’ subduction zone found

A new subduction zone forming off the coast of Portugal heralds the beginning of a cycle that will see the Atlantic Ocean close as continental Europe moves closer to America.

Published in Geology, new research led by Monash University geologists has detected the first evidence that a passive margin in the Atlantic ocean is becoming active. Subduction zones, such as the one beginning near Iberia, are areas where one of the tectonic plates that cover the Earth’s surface dives beneath another plate into the mantle – the layer just below the crust.

Lead author Dr João Duarte, from the School of Geosciences said the team mapped the ocean floor and found it was beginning to fracture, indicating tectonic activity around the apparently passive South West Iberia plate margin.

“What we have detected is the very beginnings of an active margin – it’s like an embryonic subduction zone,” Dr Duarte said.

“Significant earthquake activity, including the 1755 quake which devastated Lisbon, indicated that there might be convergent tectonic movement in the area. For the first time, we have been able to provide not only evidences that this is indeed the case, but also a consistent driving mechanism.”

The incipient subduction in the Iberian zone could signal the start of a new phase of the Wilson Cycle – where plate movements break up supercontinents, like Pangaea, and open oceans, stabilise and then form new subduction zones which close the oceans and bring the scattered continents back together.

This break-up and reformation of supercontinents has happened at least three times, over more than four billion years, on Earth. The Iberian subduction will gradually pull Iberia towards the United States over approximately 220 million years.

The findings provide a unique opportunity to observe a passive margin becoming active – a process that will take around 20 million years. Even at this early phase the site will yield data that is crucial to refining the geodynamic models.

“Understanding these processes will certainly provide new insights on how subduction zones may have initiated in the past and how oceans start to close,” Dr Duarte said.

Arctic current flowed under deep freeze of last ice age, study says

Arctic sea ice formation feeds global ocean circulation. New evidence suggests that this dynamic process persisted through the last ice age. -  National Snow & Ice Data Center
Arctic sea ice formation feeds global ocean circulation. New evidence suggests that this dynamic process persisted through the last ice age. – National Snow & Ice Data Center

During the last ice age, when thick ice covered the Arctic, many scientists assumed that the deep currents below that feed the North Atlantic Ocean and help drive global ocean currents slowed or even stopped. But in a new study in Nature, researchers show that the deep Arctic Ocean has been churning briskly for the last 35,000 years, through the chill of the last ice age and warmth of modern times, suggesting that at least one arm of the system of global ocean currents that move heat around the planet has behaved similarly under vastly different climates.

“The Arctic Ocean must have been flushed at approximately the same rate it is today regardless of how different things were at the surface,” said study co-author Jerry McManus, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Researchers reconstructed Arctic circulation through deep time by measuring radioactive trace elements buried in sediments on the Arctic seafloor. Uranium eroded from the continents and delivered to the ocean by rivers, decays into sister elements thorium and protactinium. Thorium and protactinium eventually attach to particles falling through the water and wind up in mud at the bottom. By comparing expected ratios of thorium and protactinium in those ocean sediments to observed amounts, the authors showed that protactinium was being swept out of the Arctic before it could settle to the ocean bottom.From the amount of missing protactinium, scientists can infer how quickly the overlying water must have been flushed at the time the sediments were accumulating.

“The water couldn’t have been stagnant, because we see the export of protactinium,” said the study’s lead author, Sharon Hoffmann, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty.

The upper part of the modern Arctic Ocean is flushed by North Atlantic currents while the Arctic’s deep basins are flushed by salty currents formed during sea ice formation at the surface. “The study shows that both mechanisms must have been active from the height of glaciation until now,” said Robert Newton, an oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty who was not involved in the research. “There must have been significant melt-back of sea ice each summer even at the height of the last ice age to have sea ice formation on the shelves each year. This will be a surprise to many Arctic researchers who believe deep water formation shuts down during glaciations.”

The researchers analyzed sediment cores collected during the U.S.-Canada Arctic Ocean Section cruise in 1994, a major Arctic research expedition that involved several Lamont-Doherty scientists. In each location, the cores showed that protactinium has been lower than expected for at least the past 35,000 years. By sampling cores from a range of depths, including the bottom of the Arctic deep basins, the researchers show that even the deepest waters were being flushed out at about the same rate as in the modern Arctic.

The only deep exit from the Arctic is through Fram Strait, which divides Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard islands. The deep waters of the modern Arctic flow into the North Atlantic via the Nordic seas, contributing up to 40 percent of the water that becomes North Atlantic Deep Water-known as the “ocean’s lungs” for delivering oxygen and salt to the rest of world’s oceans.

One direction for future research is to find out where the missing Arctic protactinium of the past ended up. “It’s somewhere,” said McManus. “All the protactinium in the ocean is buried in ocean sediments. If it’s not buried in one place, it’s buried in another. Our evidence suggests it’s leaving the Arctic but we think it’s unlikely to get very far before being removed.”

Arctic current flowed under deep freeze of last ice age, study says

Arctic sea ice formation feeds global ocean circulation. New evidence suggests that this dynamic process persisted through the last ice age. -  National Snow & Ice Data Center
Arctic sea ice formation feeds global ocean circulation. New evidence suggests that this dynamic process persisted through the last ice age. – National Snow & Ice Data Center

During the last ice age, when thick ice covered the Arctic, many scientists assumed that the deep currents below that feed the North Atlantic Ocean and help drive global ocean currents slowed or even stopped. But in a new study in Nature, researchers show that the deep Arctic Ocean has been churning briskly for the last 35,000 years, through the chill of the last ice age and warmth of modern times, suggesting that at least one arm of the system of global ocean currents that move heat around the planet has behaved similarly under vastly different climates.

“The Arctic Ocean must have been flushed at approximately the same rate it is today regardless of how different things were at the surface,” said study co-author Jerry McManus, a geochemist at Columbia University’s Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory.

Researchers reconstructed Arctic circulation through deep time by measuring radioactive trace elements buried in sediments on the Arctic seafloor. Uranium eroded from the continents and delivered to the ocean by rivers, decays into sister elements thorium and protactinium. Thorium and protactinium eventually attach to particles falling through the water and wind up in mud at the bottom. By comparing expected ratios of thorium and protactinium in those ocean sediments to observed amounts, the authors showed that protactinium was being swept out of the Arctic before it could settle to the ocean bottom.From the amount of missing protactinium, scientists can infer how quickly the overlying water must have been flushed at the time the sediments were accumulating.

“The water couldn’t have been stagnant, because we see the export of protactinium,” said the study’s lead author, Sharon Hoffmann, a geochemist at Lamont-Doherty.

The upper part of the modern Arctic Ocean is flushed by North Atlantic currents while the Arctic’s deep basins are flushed by salty currents formed during sea ice formation at the surface. “The study shows that both mechanisms must have been active from the height of glaciation until now,” said Robert Newton, an oceanographer at Lamont-Doherty who was not involved in the research. “There must have been significant melt-back of sea ice each summer even at the height of the last ice age to have sea ice formation on the shelves each year. This will be a surprise to many Arctic researchers who believe deep water formation shuts down during glaciations.”

The researchers analyzed sediment cores collected during the U.S.-Canada Arctic Ocean Section cruise in 1994, a major Arctic research expedition that involved several Lamont-Doherty scientists. In each location, the cores showed that protactinium has been lower than expected for at least the past 35,000 years. By sampling cores from a range of depths, including the bottom of the Arctic deep basins, the researchers show that even the deepest waters were being flushed out at about the same rate as in the modern Arctic.

The only deep exit from the Arctic is through Fram Strait, which divides Greenland and Norway’s Svalbard islands. The deep waters of the modern Arctic flow into the North Atlantic via the Nordic seas, contributing up to 40 percent of the water that becomes North Atlantic Deep Water-known as the “ocean’s lungs” for delivering oxygen and salt to the rest of world’s oceans.

One direction for future research is to find out where the missing Arctic protactinium of the past ended up. “It’s somewhere,” said McManus. “All the protactinium in the ocean is buried in ocean sediments. If it’s not buried in one place, it’s buried in another. Our evidence suggests it’s leaving the Arctic but we think it’s unlikely to get very far before being removed.”

The key role of the oceans’ subpolar regions in the climate control of the tropics is confirmed

An international team of researchers, led by the members of the Institut de Ciència i Tecnologia Ambientals (ICTA) at the Universitat Autònoma de Barcelona (UAB), has published the first registers of the evolution of Northern Pacific and Southern Atlantic sea-surface temperatures, dating from the Pliocene Era -some 3.65 million years ago- to the present. The data obtained in the reconstruction indicate that the regions closer to the poles of both oceans have played a fundamental role in climate evolution in the tropics.

This research solves another piece of the jigsaw puzzle that is the study of oceanic behavior and its influence on climate. The results are based on the doctoral thesis presented by Dr Alfredo Martínez-García (currently, a researcher with both the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology, ETH Zurich, and with the DFG-Leibniz Centre at the University of Postdam, Germany). The thesis was undertaken at the UAB and directed by Dr Antoni Rosell Melé, an ICTA ICREA researcher and adjunct professor with the Department of Geography. This work was carried out in collaboration with Dr Gerald H. Haug, of ETH and DFG-Leibniz Centre; Dr Erin L. McClymont of Newcastle University (UK); and Dr Rainer Gersonde, of the Alfred Wegener Institute (Germany).

The study of Pliocene climate has now been the object of intense research for several years, as this era represents-in the Earth’s history-the most recent climatic period in which, over a sustained period of time, average temperatures on the planet were significantly higher than those of the present. As a result, the Pliocene is thought of as a climatic period that might be representative of the Earth’s climate in future conditions of global warming.

In this study, the researchers analyzed marine sediment collected by the Integrated Ocean Drilling Program (an international initiative), and measured its composition of organic compounds termed alkenones.

Reconstruction of the surface temperature in the Northern Pacific and Southern Atlantic has enabled a simultaneous sea-surface cooling to be identified in the subpolar regions of the two hemispheres in the period between 1.8 and 1.2 million years ago. This finding coincides in time with the formation of the equatorial Pacific cold tongue-which currently almost disappears during the “El Niño” phenomenon.

Previous studies have shown that, during the warm conditions of the Pliocene, this cold tongue was not present; thus, conditions in the equatorial Pacific were similar to those of a permanent “El Niño” episode. Data obtained in this study indicate that the cooling and expansion of polar waters towards the tropics intensified atmospheric circulation. And this fact played a fundamental role in the equatorial Pacific, leading to the reduction in depth of the thermocline-the layer of ocean water in which the temperature fall rapidly-and therefore to the appearance of the equatorial cold tongue that we can currently observe.

The research undertaken provides empirical evidence, previously suggested by studies using climatic models, that the oceans in high latitudes may play a key role in the control of tropical climate and, most especially, in the thermocline depth in the equatorial Pacific.

The study contributes to the debate on which regions on the planet are those that, when their local climates change, give rise to processes of global change. It is often indicated that these regions are found in the tropics, since, when phenomena such as “El Niño” occur, they have global repercussions. This study provides evidence for the key role that may be played by the polar regions of the planet.

Currently, high latitudes are the ones that appear to be responding in the clearest way to global warming. Given the direct relationship established in this study between high-latitude climate variation and thermocline depth in the equatorial Pacific, it appears possible that the equatorial Pacific cold tongue will eventually respond to the current warming, giving rise to a climatic scenario similar to that of the Pliocene.

Sea level is rising along US Atlantic coast, say environmental scientists

Professor Ben Horton (University of Pennsylvania)
collects salt marsh sediment in North Carolina. -  University of Pennsylvania
Professor Ben Horton (University of Pennsylvania)
collects salt marsh sediment in North Carolina. – University of Pennsylvania

An international team of environmental scientists led by the University of Pennsylvania has shown that sea-level rise along the Atlantic Coast of the United States was 2 millimeters faster in the 20th century than at any time in the past 4,000 years.

Sea-level rise prior to the 20th century is attributed to coastal subsidence. Put simply, land is being lost to subsidence as the earth continues to rise in response to the removal of the huge weight of ice sheets during the last glacial period. Using sediment cores from the U.S. Atlantic coast, researchers found significant spatial variations in land movement, with the mid-Atlantic coastlines of New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland subsiding twice as much as areas to the north and south. Coastal subsidence enhances sea-level rise, which leads to shoreline erosion and loss of wetlands and threatens coastal populations.

Researchers corrected relative sea-level data from tide gauges using the coastal-subsidence values. Results clearly show that the 20th-century rate of sea-level rise is 2 millimeters higher than the background rate of the past 4,000 years. Furthermore, the magnitude of the sea-level rise increases in a southerly direction from Maine to South Carolina. This is the first demonstrated evidence of this phenomenon from observational data alone. Researchers believe this may be related to the melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet and ocean thermal expansion.

“There is universal agreement that sea level will rise as a result of global warming but by how much, when and where it will have the most effect is unclear,” said Ben Horton, assistant professor in the Department of Earth and Environmental Science at Penn. “Such information is vital to governments, commerce and the general public. An essential prerequisite for accurate prediction is understanding how sea level has responded to past climate changes and how these were influenced by geological events such as land movements.”

The study provides the first accurate dataset for sea-level rise for the U.S. Atlantic coast, identifying regional differences that arise from variations in subsidence and demonstrate the possible effects of ice-sheet melting and thermal expansion for sea level rise.

Cold water ocean circulation doesn’t work as expected

The familiar model of Atlantic ocean currents that shows a discrete “conveyor belt” of deep, cold water flowing southward from the Labrador Sea is probably all wet.

New research led by Duke University and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution relied on an armada of sophisticated floats to show that much of this water, originating in the sea between Newfoundland and Greenland, is diverted generally eastward by the time it flows as far south as Massachusetts. From there it disburses to the depths in complex ways that are difficult to follow.

A 50-year-old model of ocean currents had shown this southbound subsurface flow of cold water forming a continuous loop with the familiar northbound flow of warm water on the surface, called the Gulf Stream.

“Everybody always thought this deep flow operated like a conveyor belt, but what we are saying is that concept doesn’t hold anymore,” said Duke oceanographer Susan Lozier. “So it’s going to be more difficult to measure these climate change signals in the deep ocean.”

And since cold Labrador seawater is thought to influence and perhaps moderate human-caused climate change, this finding may affect the work of global warming forecasters.

“To learn more about how the cold deep waters spread, we will need to make more measurements in the deep ocean interior, not just close to the coast where we previously thought the cold water was confined,” said Woods Hole’s Amy Bower.

Lozier, a professor of physical oceanography at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment and Bower, a senior scientist in the department of physical oceanography at the Woods Hole Institution, are co-principal authors of a report on the findings to be published in the May 14 issue of the research journal Nature.

Their research was supported by the National Science Foundation.

Climatologists pay attention to the Labrador Sea because it is one of the starting points of a global circulation pattern that transports cold northern water south to make the tropics a little cooler and then returns warm water at the surface, via the Gulf Stream, to moderate temperatures of northern Europe.

Since forecasters say effects of global warming are magnified at higher latitudes, that makes the Labrador Sea an added focus of attention. Surface waters there absorb heat-trapping carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. And a substantial amount of that CO2 then gets pulled underwater where it is no longer available to warm Earth’s climate.

“We know that a good fraction of the human caused carbon dioxide released since the Industrial revolution is now in the deep North Atlantic” Lozier said. And going along for the ride are also climate-caused water temperature variations originating in the same Labrador Sea location.

The question is how do these climate change signals get spread further south? Oceanographers long thought all this Labrador seawater moved south along what is called the Deep Western Boundary Current (DWBC), which hugs the eastern North American continental shelf all the way to near Florida and then continues further south.

But studies in the 1990s using submersible floats that followed underwater currents “showed little evidence of southbound export of Labrador sea water within the Deep Western Boundary Current (DWBC),” said the new Nature report.

Scientists challenged those earlier studies, however, in part because the floats had to return to the surface to report their positions and observations to satellite receivers. That meant the floats’ data could have been “biased by upper ocean currents when they periodically ascended,” the report added.

To address those criticisms, Lozier and Bower launched 76 special Range and Fixing of Sound floats into the current south of the Labrador Sea between 2003 and 2006. Those “RAFOS” floats could stay submerged at 700 or 1,500 meters depth and still communicate their data for a range of about 1,000 kilometers using a network of special low frequency and amplitude seismic signals.

But only 8 percent of the RAFOS floats’ followed the conveyor belt of the Deep Western Boundary Current, according to the Nature report. About 75 percent of them “escaped” that coast-hugging deep underwater pathway and instead drifted into the open ocean by the time they rounded the southern tail of the Grand Banks.

Eight percent “is a remarkably low number in light of the expectation that the DWBC is the dominant pathway for Labrador Sea Water,” the researchers wrote.

Studies led by Lozier and other researchers had previously suggested cold northern waters might follow such “interior pathways” rather than the conveyor belt in route to subtropical regions of the North Atlantic. But “these float tracks offer the first evidence of the dominance of this pathway compared to the DWBC.”

Since the RAFOS float paths could only be tracked for two years, Lozier, her graduate student Stefan Gary, and German oceanographer Claus Boning also used a modeling program to simulate the launch and dispersal of more than 7,000 virtual “efloats” from the same starting point.

“That way we could send out many more floats than we can in real life, for a longer period of time,” Lozier said.

Subjecting those efloats to the same underwater dynamics as the real ones, the researchers then traced where they moved. “The spread of the model and the RAFOS float trajectories after two years is very similar,” they reported.

“The new float observations and simulated float trajectories provide evidence that the southward interior pathway is more important for the transport of Labrador Sea Water through the subtropics than the DWBC, contrary to previous thinking,” their report concluded.

“That means it is going to be more difficult to measure climate signals in the deep ocean,” Lozier said. “We thought we could just measure them in the Deep Western Boundary Current, but we really can’t.”

Dust plays larger than expected role in determining Atlantic temperature

The recent warming trend in the Atlantic Ocean is largely due to reductions in airborne dust and volcanic emissions during the past 30 years, according to a new study.

Since 1980, the tropical North Atlantic has been warming by an average of a quarter-degree Celsius (a half-degree Fahrenheit) per decade. Though this number sounds small, it can translate to big impacts on hurricanes, which thrive on warmer water, says Amato Evan, a researcher with the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Cooperative Institute for Meteorological Satellite Studies and lead author of the new study. For example, the ocean temperature difference between 1994, a quiet hurricane year, and 2005’s record-breaking year of storms, was just one degree Fahrenheit.

More than two-thirds of this upward trend in recent decades can be attributed to changes in African dust storm and tropical volcano activity during that time, report Evan and his colleagues at UW-Madison and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in a new paper. Their findings will appear in an upcoming issue of the journal Science and publish online March 26.

Evan and his colleagues have previously shown that African dust and other airborne particles can suppress hurricane activity by reducing how much sunlight reaches the ocean and keeping the sea surface cool. Dusty years predict mild hurricane seasons, while years with low dust activity – including 2004 and 2005 – have been linked to stronger and more frequent storms.

In the new study, they combined satellite data of dust and other particles with existing climate models to evaluate the effect on ocean temperature. They calculated how much of the Atlantic warming observed during the last 26 years can be accounted for by concurrent changes in African dust storms and tropical volcanic activity, primarily the eruptions of El Chichón in Mexico in 1982 and Mount Pinatubo in the Philippines in 1991.

In fact, it is a surprisingly large amount, Evan says. “A lot of this upward trend in the long-term pattern can be explained just by dust storms and volcanoes,” he says. “About 70 percent of it is just being forced by the combination of dust and volcanoes, and about a quarter of it is just from the dust storms themselves.”

The result suggests that only about 30 percent of the observed Atlantic temperature increases are due to other factors, such as a warming climate. While not discounting the importance of global warming, Evan says this adjustment brings the estimate of global warming impact on Atlantic more into line with the smaller degree of ocean warming seen elsewhere, such as the Pacific.

“This makes sense, because we don’t really expect global warming to make the ocean [temperature] increase that fast,” he says.

Volcanoes are naturally unpredictable and thus difficult to include in climate models, Evan says, but newer climate models will need to include dust storms as a factor to accurately predict how ocean temperatures will change.

“We don’t really understand how dust is going to change in these climate projections, and changes in dust could have a really good effect or a really bad effect,” he says.

Satellite research of dust-storm activity is relatively young, and no one yet understands what drives dust variability from year to year. However, the fundamental role of the temperature of the tropical North Atlantic in hurricane formation and intensity means that this element will be critical to developing a better understanding of how the climate and storm patterns may change.

“Volcanoes and dust storms are really important if you want to understand changes over long periods of time,” Evan says. “If they have a huge effect on ocean temperature, they’re likely going to have a huge effect on hurricane variability as well.”