Weather: Current ideas in climate research

The oceans are the greatest unknown factor in the equation of weather. An international project based in Southampton, however, is bringing us closer to a detailed understanding of the interaction of sea and climate.

These are exciting times for the World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE), a global research project that started in 1990. The idea behind it sounds simple: to improve ocean models for predicting climate change and to collect the data needed to test them. In practice, however, taking the necessary measurements has not been easy. Research ships could cover only a tiny sample of the vast area of the oceans, and measurements were generally restricted to conditions near the surface. So when the WOCE began, it was designed as a 12-year-long project, seven years of collecting data and five years of analysing it.

The first phase is now approaching its end, which is one reason for excitement, but the coincidental arrival of the biggest El Nino this century is a bonus that should provide the data needed to offer a stern test of the robustness of computer models of climate.

The oceans play a huge role in the way solar energy affects the earth. About 50 per cent of the sun's incoming radiation reaches the earth's surface, and the greater part of that energy is absorbed by the top layers of the oceans. The high thermal capacity of sea water ensures that it is an effective store of heat. Currents then ensure that the oceans play their part in distributing heat around the world.

At the highest levels of the oceans, currents are driven by the wind. The Gulf Stream, for example, is a consequence of winds caused by the Earth's rotation and the differential heating of Equator and poles by the sun. The result is that the oceans help in the spread of energy from the Equator to the poles. But it is what goes on at deeper levels that makes it more complicated.

Until comparatively recently, it was thought that the deeper parts of the ocean were generally still. One finding of the WOCE survey is that that is not the case. While the winds efficiently stir and mix the water to a shallow depth, there is also a slow and sporadic mixing taking place vertically. The "thermohaline circulation" converts masses of warm surface water at high latitudes to colder, denser masses which sink and return towards the Equator. The WOCE research has followed the paths of such masses of new deep water and has confirmed that it eventually returns to the surface, even decades or centuries later, on a sort of global conveyor belt.

Two diagrams in a recent publication from WOCE give an idea of the power of such systems. One shows the flow of ocean volumes of water; the other shows the transport of heat. The units employed are millions of cubic metres per second and Petawatts (1015 watts). One Petawatt is about 60 times the global consumption of energy.

Internet users can learn more about the WOCE at http://www.soc.soton.ac.uk/ OTHERS/woceipo/ipo.html

Arts and Entertainment
Joel Edgerton, John Turturro and Christian Bale in Exodus: Gods and Kings
film
Arts and Entertainment
Brendan O'Carroll as Agnes Brown in the 2014 Mrs Brown's Boys Christmas special
tvCould Mrs Brown's Boys have taken lead for second year?
News
Members and supporters of the lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender (LGBT) community walk with a rainbow flag during a rally in July
news
Sport
footballLive! Chelsea vs West Ham kicked off 10 Boxing Day matches, with Arsenal vs QPR closing the action
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
ebooks
ebookPart of The Independent’s new eBook series The Great Composers
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Jack O'Connell stars as Louis Zamperini in Angelina Jolie's Unbroken
film review... even if Jack O'Connell is excellent
Arts and Entertainment
Madonna is not in Twitter's good books after describing her album leak as 'artistic rape and terrorism'
music14 more 'Rebel Heart' tracks leaked including Pharrell Williams collaboration
News
news
Arts and Entertainment
Wolf (Nathan McMullen), Ian (Dan Starky), The Doctor (Peter Capaldi), Clara (Jenna Coleman), Santa Claus (Nick Frost) in the Doctor Who Christmas Special (BBC/Photographer: David Venni)
tvOur review of the Doctor Who Christmas Special
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs General

    Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executive- City of London, Old Street

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Senior Marketing Executiv...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager

    £40000 - £43000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: An international organisa...

    Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwickshire

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Internal Recruiter -Rugby, Warwicksh...

    Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketing Controller (Financial Services)

    £70000 - £75000 per annum + benefits: Ashdown Group: Marketing Manager/Marketi...

    Day In a Page

    A Christmas without hope: Fears grow in Gaza that the conflict with Israel will soon reignite

    Christmas without hope

    Gaza fears grow that conflict with Israel will soon reignite
    After 150 years, you can finally visit the grisliest museum in the country

    The 'Black Museum'

    After 150 years, you can finally visit Britain's grisliest museum
    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    No ho-ho-hos with Nick Frost's badass Santa

    Doctor Who Christmas Special TV review
    Chilly Christmas: Swimmers take festive dip for charity

    Chilly Christmas

    Swimmers dive into freezing British waters for charity
    Veterans' hostel 'overwhelmed by kindness' for festive dinner

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    In 2010, Sgt Gary Jamieson stepped on an IED in Afghanistan and lost his legs and an arm. He reveals what, and who, helped him to make a remarkable recovery
    Isis in Iraq: Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment by militants

    'Jilan killed herself in the bathroom. She cut her wrists and hanged herself'

    Yazidi girls killing themselves to escape rape and imprisonment
    Ed Balls interview: 'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'

    Ed Balls interview

    'If I think about the deficit when I'm playing the piano, it all goes wrong'
    He's behind you, dude!

    US stars in UK panto

    From David Hasselhoff to Jerry Hall
    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz: What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?

    Grace Dent's Christmas Quiz

    What are you – a festive curmudgeon or top of the tree?
    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Nasa planning to build cloud cities in airships above Venus

    Planet’s surface is inhospitable to humans but 30 miles above it is almost perfect
    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history - clocks, rifles, frogmen’s uniforms and colonial helmets

    Clocks, rifles, swords, frogmen’s uniforms

    Surrounded by high-rise flats is a little house filled with Lebanon’s history
    Return to Gaza: Four months on, the wounds left by Israel's bombardment have not yet healed

    Four months after the bombardment, Gaza’s wounds are yet to heal

    Kim Sengupta is reunited with a man whose plight mirrors the suffering of the Palestinian people
    Gastric surgery: Is it really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Is gastric surgery really the answer to the UK's obesity epidemic?

    Critics argue that it’s crazy to operate on healthy people just to stop them eating
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction Part 2 - now LIVE

    Homeless Veterans appeal: Christmas charity auction

    Bid on original art, or trips of a lifetime to Africa or the 'Corrie' set, and help Homeless Veterans
    Pantomime rings the changes to welcome autistic theatre-goers

    Autism-friendly theatre

    Pantomime leads the pack in quest to welcome all