Thursday, April 17, 2008

Mysterious Striped Currents In Our Oceans

Between 1992 and 2003, scientists collected data from more than 10,000 drifting ocean buoys, which they tracked with satellites. The buoys’ movements were influenced mainly by known global currents, which are driven by wind and by differences in the temperature and salinity of seawater.

SubHuman © M. Ryan & M Schultz
But it emerged that something else had been subtly influencing the buoys’ paths. It turned out that there were alternating strips of water running eastward or westward, a bit like parallel moving sidewalks. Niiler recalls his reaction: “My God, we’ve never seen these before.”

Satellite measurements showed that the interfaces between adjacent currents were alternately associated with slight peaks and troughs in sea level. When the team looked at this variation globally, they found that the 150-kilometre-wide bands covered pretty much every ocean.

They recorded currents flowing in opposite directions at around 40 metres per hour. The flows extend right down to the ocean floor, and the boundaries between currents are alternately associated with peaks and troughs in temperature as well as sea level. This suggests that they influence processes such as nutrient and energy flow around the oceans, but this has yet to be proven, says Niiler.

What causes the striped flows remains a puzzle. “They are a fascinating new aspect to the ocean’s circulation, but the jury is still out on the mechanisms leading to their formation,” says Geoff Vallis of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at Princeton University.

He points out that similar patterns exist in atmospheric flows on other planets, for example, Jupiter. Whether similar effects are at play here is unclear, he says. link
Ref: Maximenko, N. A., O. V. Melnichenko, P. P. Niiler, and H. Sasaki (2008), Stationary mesoscale jet-like features in the ocean. Geophys. Res. Lett., in press.