Category Archives: Oceanography

noaa map

NOAA to double size of California’s bay area marine sanctuary

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), Obama administration and California lawmakers have announced a doubling of the size of the Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones national marine sanctuaries off Northern California.

Map via NOAA.


“NOAA is expanding the boundaries of Cordell Bank National Marine Sanctuary (CBNMS) and Gulf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary (GFNMS) to an area north and west of their current boundaries, as well as amending existing sanctuary regulations and adding new regulations. NOAA is also revising the corresponding sanctuary terms of designation and management plans,” NOAA said in a statement.

The Cordell Bank and Gulf of the Farallones was established in 1989 to protect and preserve the extraordinary marine ecosystem surrounding the Cordell Bank. Located in a special geological setting, with soft sediments and rocky habitats, the gulf provides home to colorful and abundant invertebrates, algae, and fishes. The National Marine Sanctuary will increase from 529 square miles to 1,286 square miles from, more than doubling, while the Culf of the Farallones National Marine Sanctuary, designated in 1981, located due west of San Francisco will expand to 3,295 from its current 1,282 square miles.

“We are thrilled to announce the expansion of two of our sanctuaries in California. It’s important to conserve these special places that encourage partnerships in science, education, technology, management and community,” said Holly Bamford, Ph.D., acting assistant secretary of conservation and management and NOAA’s deputy administrator in a statement.

Rather surprisingly, both California lawmakers and the Obama administration not only agreed to the NOAA proposal, but approved it rather swiftly.

“I am grateful to the Obama administration for this historic decision, which will more than double these magnificent national marine sanctuaries off the California coast and permanently protect one of the most productive coastal ocean regions on the planet,” Sen. Barbara Boxer, D-Calif., said in a statement.

The move is not only an environmental one, as officials expect this will support more than 500,000 jobs and return over $34 billion in economic activity that depend on ocean tourism, recreation, and fishing.

“It’s ironic that against the backdrop of this war on nature that we’re seeing in the U.S. Congress right now, we are able to suddenly pull off this long-sought result of permanent protection for this spectacular piece of coast,” Richard Charter, a senior fellow with the nonprofit Ocean Foundation, told SF Gate. “That is just a miracle.”

Designating a Marine Sanctuary doesn’t necessarily imply a ban on fishing development or other activities – but it does mean that these activities will have to be conducted under different, more sustainable laws.


On July 10, 2011, Don Perovich, of Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, maneuvered through melt ponds collecting optical data along the way to get a sense of the amount of sunlight reflected from sea ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea.
Image credits: NASA.

Arctic ice melting much faster than thought

Using both modern and historic measurements, researchers now have a more extensive view of how the Arctic sea ice has changed in the past few decades, finding that the ice is melting much faster than previously expected. The ice in the central Arctic Ocean thinned 65 percent between 1975 and 2012, from 11.7 feet (3.59 meters) to 4.1 feet (1.25 m).

On July 10, 2011, Don Perovich, of Cold Regions Research and Engineering Laboratory, maneuvered through melt ponds collecting optical data along the way to get a sense of the amount of sunlight reflected from sea ice and melt ponds in the Chukchi Sea.
Image credits: NASA.

“The ice is thinning dramatically,” said lead researcher Ron Lindsay, a climatologist at the University of Washington (UW) Applied Physics Laboratory. “We knew the ice was thinning, but we now have additional confirmation on how fast, and we can see that it’s not slowing down.”

Throughout its geological history, the Earth’s climate has changed numerous times – there were times when there were no polar ice caps at all, and there were times when most of the Earth was frozen. But the key word here is “geological” – all these changes occurred over hundreds of thousands of years, if not millions. The climatic changes we are now witnessing are, according to the geological record, unprecedented in terms of speed; we are just now starting to understand the dramatic impact that this temperature shift is having.

This particular study integrated all the studies documenting Arctic ice thickness; the data was acquired in a number of ways. For example, from 1975 to 1990, most ice-thickness readings were from under-ice submarines. These vessels once used sonar to measure ice drift so they could figure out where they could safely surface. The submarine data indicates that between 1975 and 2000 the ice thinned by 36 percent, which means that the rest of 29 percent thinned between 2000 and 2012.

“This confirms and extends that study,” Lindsay said. The larger data set used in the new study shows that the leveling off of sea ice thinning in the 1990s was only temporary, he said.

Since 2000, the satellite technology became viable enough to use it (along with airborne measurements) to estimate the ice’s thickness. While the ice’s extent is clearly visible from these measurements, thickness is more difficult to estimate, but it can be done. According to the study, direct, these measurements are just as accurate as hands-on ice-measuring methods used by people on the ground.

“Using all these different observations that have been collected over time, it pretty much verifies the trend that we have from the model for the past 13 years, though our estimate of thinning compared to previous decades may have been a little slow,” Schweiger said.

But not everyone is convinced; some researchers believe that there is not enough data to draw a definite conclusion and quantify the thinning of the Arctice ice. Julienne Stroeve, a sea ice researcher with the National Snow and Ice Data Center in Boulder, Colo., told Climate Central in an email:

“It would be great to have a long-term sea ice thickness dataset,” like the one Lindsay and Schweiger compiled, but there are inherent and varying biases in the data that make conclusions from such combined data hard to trust. Stroeve was not involved in the new study.

But even if the study overestimates (or maybe even underestimates) the rate at which the ice is thinning, it’s a step in the right direction – it’s an attempt to integrate different types of data, which is always challenging.

“This is just one attempt to put it together,” Lindsay said. “I think it is just a first step.”

The study was published in the journal The Criosphere. You can read the full article, for free HERE.


This is what the underneath of an iceberg looks like

We often say that you only see 10% of the iceberg, the rest being underwater. US photographer Alex Cornell actually got the chance to see that – during a trip to Antarctica, he managed to take pictures of an extremely rare phenomenon: a flipped iceberg.

In his pictures, Cornell managed to capture the eerie beauty of the iceberg.

“It looked a lot more like a parked spacecraft than a floating iceberg,” Cornell wrote over at Reframe.

The picture also highlights an important feature – even though we think of icebergs as being white, that’s not really their real color – they get that from snow. In reality, they’re pretty much the same color that water is – a deep type of blue – because their chemical make-up absorbs light towards the red end of the spectrum and reflects the blue wavelengths back out to the world.

The rarity of what he was seeing didn’t struck him until later.

“I think the funny thing was seeing this specific iceberg at the time wasn’t any more astounding than looking at the place itself,” Cornell told

It was only after the expedition’s glaciologist reacted with extreme enthusiasm that Cornell realized what he was seeing. Cornell shot the photos at Cierva Cove on the Antarctic Peninsula last December on an expedition through the Drake Passage.

See more of his images at his website. You can also follow him on Twitter and Instagram to see more of his work. Especially the pictures from this expedition are quite spectacular.

All image credits: Alex Cornell.



Obama proclaims world’s largest Marine Park

President Obama has signed a proclamation which will make the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument the largest marine reserve in the world.


Up until now, the Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument was a group of unorganized, mostly unincorporated United States Pacific Island territories managed by the Fish and Wildlife Service. They host many important species, including corals, fish, shellfish, marine mammals, seabirds, water birds, land birds, insects, and vegetation not found elsewhere; now, they have been declared “the most widespread collection of marine- and terrestrial-life protected areas on the planet under a single country’s jurisdiction”.

The Pacific Remote Islands Marine National Monument will now measure nearly 490,000 square miles (1.3 million square km), six times its initial size, and about 3 times as big as Germany. It will also be bigger than all the natural on-land parks in the US combined. So what does being a Marine Park entail?

Well, a Marine Park is a park consisting of an area of sea (or lake) sometimes protected for recreational use, but more often set aside to preserve a specific habitat and ensure the ecosystem is sustained for the organisms that exist there. So the main purpose is to preserve the habitat and ensure the sustainability of the ecosystem. To this end, commercial fishing, dumping, and mining will be prohibited in the reserve. However, recreational fishing is still allowed – with permits.


“What has happened is extraordinary. It is history making. There is a lot of reason we should be celebrating right now,” said Elliott Norse, founder and chief scientist of the Seattle-based Marine Conservation Institute.

Enric Sala, an ocean scientist and National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, called the newly expanded monument “a great example of marine protection.” Indeed, even if the protected area is smaller than the 782,000 square miles initially considered. Senator Kerry declared:

“We’re committed to protecting more of the world’s ocean. Today, one to three percent of the ocean is protected, that’s it. That’s why President Obama will sign a proclamation today that will create one of the largest maritime protected areas in the world. It will be protected in perpetuity.”

Indeed, this decision seemed to please everybody except the big fishing companies. Fishing stocks have been harvested unsustainably throughout the world’s oceans, and this type of proclamation is way overdue, if we want to maintain fish stocks and help preserve pristine marine ecosystems. Allowing recreational fishing, which doesn’t have a major impact on the habitat was also hailed.

“Going back to his first campaign, the President has said that his agenda regarding access to public lands is going to be one that ensures the outdoors is available to the next generation,” said American Sportfishing Association President and CEO Mike Nussman.
“Acknowledging that recreational fishing is a sustainable use of a public resource, especially in one as pristine and special as this area of the Pacific, is a distinction for which the recreational fishing community has been advocating for many years. We thank the administration for making the distinction between a recreational activity that millions of Americans enjoy each day and commercial fishing.”

A young Hawaiin Monk Seal and a Green Sea Turtle are both species that will be protected as part of the proclamation. Image credits: Refugee Association.

As you’d expect for a planet mostly covered by water, most of the world’s biodiversity is in waters. However, because we live on land, we focus more on protecting land than water – out of sight, out of mind. But we have a moral duty – towards the ecosystems, future generations, and towards our own conservation – to preserve the oceans. David Helvarg, the author of several books on the ocean and the founder of the advocacy group Blue Frontier Campaign says:

“Although 71 percent of our planet is covered with saltwater, we have protected much more of the land than the ocean,” Helvarg said. But the newly expanded monument is a big step in the right direction, he added.

It’s all good to declare Marine Parks, but how do you actually enforce the measures? When you’re dealing with such a huge and remote area, how do you make sure that there are no criminals abusing the park?

 “Agreements won’t matter if no one is enforcing them,” senator Kerry acknowledged. It’s going to take training and resources.”

Personally, I think this is a remarkable achievement – and while it may take a while, and a lot of money to actually enforce these measures, the long term benefit will severely outweigh the costs. Give us more Marine Parks… more !


Huge waves observed for the first time in the Arctic Ocean

As the climate changes, the poles are the first to change. In the most northern regions on Earth, ice is melting at fast rates, leaving more water in their retreat. More open water means that waves have more room to grow, also increasing the storm potential.

“As the Arctic is melting, it’s a pretty simple prediction that the additional open water should make waves,” said lead author Jim Thomson, an oceanographer with the UW Applied Physics Laboratory.

This is exactly what is happening. A researcher from the University of Washington studied of open waves in the middle of the Arctic Ocean, and what he found is startling – in the peak of a storm, the waves measured unprecedented heights of 5 meters (16 feet). The winds themselves weren’t out of the ordinary, but because there is more open water, there are no obstacles for wave formation. The size of the waves increases with the fetch, or travel distance over open water.

Traditionally, Arctic ice used to retreat less than 100 miles from the shore; in 2012, it retreated over 1000 miles, and the number is growing. Oil companies, which initially rejoiced at the idea of a less icy north which would allow them to expand their operations North, are starting to face problems because of the high waves.

“Almost all of the casualties and losses at sea are because of stormy conditions, and breaking waves are often the culprit,” Thomson said.

There’s also a feedback effect – called the albedo effect. Basically, snow is white and reflects more sunlight. Open water is darker, and absorbs more sunlight, and therefore more heat. The more snow melts, the darker it becomes, the hotter it gets, the more snow melts – and so on. It’s like a snowball effect (but the other way around).

But this has been known for quite a while. The big waves however are new.

“The melting has been going on for decades. What we’re talking about with the waves is potentially a new process, a mechanical process, in which the waves can push and pull and crash to break up the ice,” Thomson said.

Big waves breaking on the shore also accelerate coastal erosion, which can have significant negative effects on the coastline. But all in all, we can’t estimate the full extent of this process.

“At this point, we don’t really know relative importance of these processes in future scenarios.”

The other author is W. Erick Rogers at the Naval Research Laboratory. The research was funded by the U.S. Office of Naval Research.

Source: Washington University

Ocean Heat Content from 0 to 300 meters (grey), 700 m (blue), and total depth (violet) from ORAS4, as represented by its 5 ensemble members. The time series show monthly anomalies smoothed with a 12-month running mean, with respect to the 1958–1965 base period. If you take the past 15 years, it looks a lot like an exponential function to me.

Study suggests global warming has in fact accelerated in the past 15 years

You’ve probably heard it a few times: the climate is indeed warming up, but it’s all good, because the rate at which it is warming up is slowing down. But a new study published in Geophysical Research Letters analyzing ocean warming (which represents 90% of global warming) claims otherwise.

Accelerating global warming

Ocean Heat Content from 0 to 300 meters (grey), 700 m (blue), and total depth (violet) from ORAS4, as represented by its 5 ensemble members. The time series show monthly anomalies smoothed with a 12-month running mean, with respect to the 1958–1965 base period. If you take the past 15 years, it looks a lot like an exponential function to me.

Contrary to the rather popular belief, global warming isn’t slowing down – it’s accelerating, at least in the past 15 years. More overall global warming can be observed in the past 15 years than the prior 15 years, especially if you analyze ocean waters; this is the ‘missing heat’ some ‘climate skeptics’ (that’s what they like to call themselves, even though the term has a very different meaning) have been pointing fingers at.

Consistent with the results of another study conducted by Nuccitelli et al. (2012), this study finds that 30% of the ocean warming over the past decade has occurred in the deeper oceans below 700 meters, which they note is unprecedented over at least the past half century.

Several recent studies analyzing the development of global warming have concluded that the results are much less dire than what was predicted by IPCC, and that the phenomena exists, but it is decelerating. According to Magdalena A. Balmaseda, Kevin E. Trenberth and Erland Källén, those studies are wrong, because they only account for the atmospheric warming, not for oceanic warming, which, as they explain, accounts for some 90 percent of all warming. The unfortunate result of these faulty studies is the fact that they have lulled many people into a false and unwarranted sense of security.

Data from this study was obtained from the European Centre for Medium-Range Weather Forecasts’ Ocean Reanalysis System 4 (ORAS4).

“ORAS4 has been produced by combining, every 10 days, the output of an ocean model forced by atmospheric reanalysis fluxes and quality controlled ocean observations.”, they explained.

A global warming wake up call

As if we didn’t get enough warnings already, we are once again shown how dire our situation as a species really is. The past 15 years have been “the most sustained warming trend” in the past century – global warming has not paused, has not slowed down – it is accelerating!

Perhaps just as important, climate researchers have to learn to take into account all the factors that lead to global warming – or at least as many as it’s humanly possible; ignoring the ocean when developing models is not really what you want to do.

In fact, as Roger Pielke Sr. has pointed out, “ocean heat content change [is] the most appropriate metric to diagnose global warming.” If we don’t do that, we can easily fool ourselves into thinking everything’s all right, or at least not getting any worse.

Published Research


NASA releases global salinity map

NASA has, for the first time, released a global map of ocean salinity. The first thing that popped up for me was the pulse of freshwater gushing from the Amazon, but other major features are worth noticing.


An invisible seam divides the salty Arabian Sea from the fresher waters of the Bay of Bengal and a large patch of freshwater appears in the eastern tropical Pacific in the winter. These and others in ocean salinity levels were revealed by the first full year of surface salinity data captured by NASA’s Aquarius instrument.

“With a bit more than a year of data, we are seeing some surprising patterns, especially in the tropics,” said Aquarius Principal Investigator Gary Lagerloef, of Earth & Space Research in Seattle. “We see features evolve rapidly over time.”

Launched in 2011, aboard the Argentine spacecraft Aquarius/Satélite de Aplicaciones Científicas (SAC)-D, Aquarius is NASA’s first satellite instrument built with the specific purpose of studying the salinity of surface waters. Salinity variations are one of the main drivers of oceanic water circulation, closely connected with the cycling of freshwater, and studying them could provide valuable information (among others) on how the changing global climate is altering global rainfall patterns.

Initially, researchers want to analyze the major features. The Arabian Sea, nestled up against the dry Middle East, is much saltier than the neighboring Bay of Bengal which is showered by the Gange and other major rivers. Also, it’s no surprise that the Amazon pumps a huge quantity of sweet water. Also, another thing that is really nice to see is the large patch of highly saline water across the North Atlantic. This area, the saltiest anywhere in the open ocean is (with a bit of a stretch) the analogous of a desert on land – with little rainfall and lots of evaporation.

“My conclusion after five weeks out at sea and analyzing five weekly maps of salinity from Aquarius while we were there was that indeed, the patterns of salinity variation seen from Aquarius and by the ship were similar,” said Eric Lindstrom, NASA’s physical oceanography program scientist, of NASA Headquarters, Washington, and a participant of the SPURS research cruise.

But this is just the beginning – and as time passes on, researchers will want to look into more details regarding this.

“The Aquarius prime mission is scheduled to run for three years but there is no reason to think that the instrument could not be able to provide valuable data for much longer than that,” said Gene Carl Feldman, Aquarius project manager at NASA’s Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt, Md. “The instrument has been performing flawlessly and our colleagues in Argentina are doing a fantastic job running the spacecraft, providing us a nice, stable ride.”

The next immediate objective is to fine-tune the readings and retrieve data closer to the coasts and the poles. The sensors detect the microwave emissivity of the top 1 to 2 centimeters – a property that depends on temperature and salinity. The thing is, land and ice emit very bright microwave emissions that swamp the signal read by the satellite. This especially adds complications at the poles, where cold polar waters require very large changes in their salt concentration to modify their microwave signal. Still, the Aquarius team was surprised to see just how good the instrument is already able to collect and analyze measurements.

“The fact that we’re getting areas, particularly around islands in the Pacific, that are not obviously badly contaminated is pretty remarkable. It says that our ability to screen out land contamination seems to be working quite well,” Feldman said.

The ultimate goal of the project however is to mix the data with that from its European counterpart, the Soil Moisture and Ocean Salinity satellite (SMOS) to produce more accurate and finer maps of ocean salinity.

“The first year of the Aquarius mission has mostly been about understanding how the instruments and algorithms are performing,” Feldman said. “Now that we have overcome the major hurdles, we can really begin to focus on understanding what the data are telling us about how the ocean works, how it affects weather and climate, and what new insights we can gain by having these remarkable salinity measurements.”