Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution researchers set sail today to the saltiest spot in the North Atlantic to understand how the salinity of the ocean is related to shifts in rainfall patterns around the world.
Sponsored by NASA, researchers will spend three weeks halfway between the Bahamas and the western coast of North Africa taking temperature, salinity and other measurements from the WHOI research vessel Knorr.
They hope to better understand one of the more threatening aspects of climate change: The acceleration of the earth’s water cycle. As the earth warms, evaporation increases, altering the frequency, strength and distribution of rainfall around the world. Scientists studying salinity of the ocean say they already see an increase in the speed of the water cycle that could exacerbate droughts and floods around the world.
Parts of the ocean's surface become saltier when evaporation increases and rain becomes scarcer, while spots with lots of rainfall become fresher. These changes in saltiness, scientists say, means the ocean may give a better record of changes in precipitation than land. Researchers hope to eventually understand what salinity trends are driven by the ocean and which ones are driven by changes in evaporation and precipitation.
The research voyage is part of a multi-year mission called the Salinity Processes in the Upper Ocean Regional Study, or SPURS, study which will deploy instruments in different regions of the ocean.
"What if the drought in the U.S. Midwest became permanent? To understand whether that could happen we must understand the water cycle and how it will change as the climate continues to warm," said Raymond Schmitt, a physical oceanographer at Woods Hole and principal investigator for SPURS. "Getting that right is going to involve understanding the ocean, because the ocean is the source of most of the water."
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