Scientists have discovered the relationship between ocean weather and global climate

Scientists have discovered the relationship between ocean weather and global climate

Using mechanistic rather than statistical analysis, the team offers a new framework for understanding the climate system.

An international team of scientists has discovered the first direct evidence linking random ocean weather systems to climate on a global scale. Led by Hussein Alawi, an associate professor in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Rochester and a scientist in the university's Laser Energy Laboratory, the team published their findings in Advancement of science.

The ocean has climate patterns like those we experience on Earth, but on different time and length scales, says lead author Benjamin Storer, a research associate in Aluie's Turbulence and Complex Flow Group. A weather pattern on land may last a few days and is about 500 kilometers across, while oceanic weather patterns such as eddies last three to four weeks but are about one-fifth the size.

“Scientists have long speculated that these ubiquitous, seemingly random movements in the ocean communicate with climate metrics, but they have always been mysterious because it has not been clear how to untangle this complex system to measure their interactions,” Alloy says. “We developed a framework that can do just that. What we found was not what people expected because it requires mediating the atmosphere.”

The group's goal was to understand how energy passes through different channels in the ocean throughout the planet. They used a mathematical method developed by Aluie in 2019, which was later implemented in advanced code by Storer and Aluie, allowing them to study energy transfer across different patterns ranging from the circumference of the Earth to 10 kilometers. These techniques were then applied to ocean datasets from an advanced climate model and from satellite observations.

The study revealed that ocean weather systems become active and weak when they interact with climate parameters, in a pattern that reflects global atmospheric circulation. The researchers also found that a band of atmosphere near the equator called the “intertropical convergence zone” produces 30% of global precipitation, causes an intense amount of energy transfer, and produces ocean turbulence.

Studying such complex fluid movement occurring at multiple scales is not easy, but it has advantages over previous attempts to link weather to climate change, Storer and Alloy say. They believe the team's work creates a promising framework for better understanding the climate system.

“There is a lot of interest in how global warming and our changing climate will affect extreme weather events,” Alloy says. “These research efforts typically rely on statistical analysis that requires extensive data to trust uncertainties. We take a different approach that relies on automated analysis, which relaxes some of these requirements and allows us to understand cause and effect more easily.”

The team that played a central role in the investigation also included Michele Bozzicotti, a research scientist at the University of Rome Tor Vergata; Hemant Khatri, research associate at the University of Liverpool, and Stephen Greaves, a senior scientist at Princeton University.

Support for the project included funding from the National Science Foundation, the National Aeronautics and Space Administration, and the US Department of Energy.

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