Sea life's importance to the climate

By: Dr. Jeff Masters , 2:45 PM GMT on May 29, 2007

Does the marine biosphere mix the ocean? A group of oceanographers led by W.K. Dewar of Florida State University argue that the swimming action of fish and other marine organisms may play a critical role in driving ocean currents. If true, large-scale over-fishing or the collapse of the marine food chain due to pollution or ocean acidification may cause significant changes in ocean currents--and Earth's climate.

Figure 1. Rainbow made From a sperm whale using his blowhole. Image taken June 17, 2006 in Kaikora, New Zealand by wunderphotographer jhfelder.

The Meridional Overturning Circulation (MOC) or Thermohaline Circulation is a well-known feature of the ocean circulation. In the Atlantic, the Gulf Stream current forms a portion of the MOC. Gulf Stream waters flow to the region near Greenland, where an input of fresh, denser water from melting ice and river run-off creates a downward flow of water that then moves southward along the ocean bottom towards the Equator. This deep water eventually returns to the surface in the mid-Atlantic to complete a cell of the MOC. Scientists have long thought that the energy needed to drive the MOC came from winds and tides--about two terrawatts of energy (Munk and Wunsch, 1998). However, Dewar et al. show that the mechanical energy added to the ocean by the swimming action of whales is about 1% of this total, and the swimming action of other marine organisms (primarily zooplankton) adds up to 50% of this total--one terrawatt of energy. While the authors admit that their calculations may have large errors, this research shows that marine life may have a heretofore unappreciated large impact on Earth's climate. Our climate is intimately connected to the sun, life on land, life in the ocean, and human activities in an incredibly complex web of interconnections. It is our challenge to understand this system, even as we change it and it changes of its own accord.

My next blog will be Thursday afternoon, when the new Dr. Bill Gray/Phil Klotzbach Atlantic hurricane season forecast will be released.

Jeff Masters

Dewar, W.K., R.J. Bingham, R.L. Iverson, D.P. Nowacek, L.C. St. Laurent, and P.H. Wiebe, 2006, "Does the marine biosphere mix the ocean?", Journal of Marine Research, 64, 541-561.

Munk, W., and C. Wunsch, 1998, "Abyssal recipes II: Energetics of tidal and wind mixing", Deep-Sea Res., 45, 1976-2009.

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221. plywoodstatenative
8:22 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
nash, whats the chance for a neutral La Nina compared to an overly active La Nina given what we have seen in both basins?
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220. plywoodstatenative
8:21 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
well the only thing interesting out there is the blow up in the GOM. Other than that all I can see is that the ULL finally moved away, so lets see what develops from that.

What are the SST's off of Africa this time of year?
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219. BoyntonBeach
8:21 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
TCW - Do you agree with the forecast ? We are only 3 days out...
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218. hurricane23
16:19 EDT le 29 mai 2007
Posted By: marlinsfan1 at 16:18 EDT le 29 mai 2007. (hide)
Is there any chance of the caribbean blob to develop into a tropical storm?

It could develope but most likely it would be non-tropical in nature.
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217. nash28
8:19 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
Alright, just got home from work and I see there are two trains of thought. One says nothing happening until late June or early July. Other says keep an eye open on the Carribean as well as the EPAC. Oh, and general bitching about Dr. Masters blog topic today.

Well, I believe it is asinine to dismiss any activity for the next month. Pattern is changing. Shear is dropping, albeit slowly. The pattern we are currently in is normal for May. Let's not forget last year, which was coined a "dud" by many spawned a TS in the Gulf which came over the Tampa area in the second week of June. I was in Dallas at the time on vacation, but my wife was keeping me informed about the copious amounts of hard driving rain that was flooding our property.

Here's the point..... It is foolish to make a long term forecast. I do not do this for good reason. The EPAC situation right now has no bearing on the long term ATL season. None. Zero. We are still in a neutral ENSO. Not going back to El Nino. The pattern is changing. The subtropical jet is retreating northward. Do not let your guard down.
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216. marlinsfan1
4:17 PM EDT on May 29, 2007
Is there any chance of the caribbean blob to develop into a tropical storm?
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215. sullivanweather
8:04 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
Gulf Stream waters flow to the region near Greenland, where an input of fresh, denser water from melting ice and river run-off creates a downward flow of water that then moves southward along the ocean bottom towards the Equator.

I thought that the water from melting ice and river runoff (fresh water) was less dense??
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214. Jedkins
7:58 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
I mean put this way, yes its possible that this may not materialize as advertised, but there is always that risk with forecasting, things often don't go as forecasted.

And if you look at climotology, its obious the best solution would be to expect pretty good rains out of this because its typical by June, where as 2 weeks ago it wasn't very typical, and it did exactly that, never materialized.
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213. TheCaneWhisperer
7:57 PM GMT on May 29, 2007

Afternoon all!
212. hurricane23
3:53 PM EDT on May 29, 2007
Actually convective feedback i would have to agree as the GFS as there has been some problems with the model since the upgrade was done.Its main problem is on its genesis.
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210. Jedkins
7:52 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
Oh and yes the models have had false alarms in recent weeks, but come on, the NWS seems to be acting rather nieve, because May typically is dry for us, where as on average it does get wet typically right as June starts, climotologically speeking, it makes a lot more since for this to materialize then previous event forecasted by models and for the NWS to overlook this at this time is wrong to me.
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208. Jedkins
7:46 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
the NWS here seems to be over conservative sometimes, they are calling the GFS rainfall convective feedback for this system thats expected to move over Florida.

I completely disagree, this is Florida, and although we have been dry, the chance of this system being a big soaker is just as high as it just being a decent rain maker.

This is Florida, arguably the wettest state or one of the wettest on average depending on your source. So if a pattern change is coming, and we a have a low moving out of the tropics, I think NWS here in the Tampa Bay area is being a little too conservative, I have lived here a while and seen tons of rain out of even very weak systems here.

What they should say is: GFS is painting a lot of rain for our area which is a good sign but we will keep rain chances low for now untill we see more consistency and when we get a better idea what will happen as we get closer to this event.

Thats a good way to be conservative, I think calling it convective feedback seems rather overdone, because that could easily be very wrong.
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206. Inyo
7:49 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
Also, as for small animals impacting large scale conditions.. think of earthworms. They are tiny and individually insignificant, but without them the amount and quality of soil on the earth would be much lower, and the planet would be quite noticably different.
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205. Inyo
7:47 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
Hi Inyo/franck
polite correction: The Pine Bark beetles are destroying millions of acres of Rockies Pine not because of forestry mismanagement, but because the winters are no longer cold enough in those regions to kill off the majority of the eggs as it used to. This is one of the more easily visible impacts of climate change (a more accurate term than GW as it encompasses localized instability). as the winters get milder, the beetle is also migrating northward, and is expected to cover most of NA within ten years. Very hard to "manage" infestations of such insane magnitudes without significant enviromental toxicity and cost.

Well, I am familiar with California... in this part of the world, densities of Ponderosa Pine, Jeffrey Pine, White Fir, etc, are believed to be many, many times higher than what was the original state. Old photos, drawings, and journal entries show an open woodland with scattered pines and an understory of duff, herbs, and small bushes. Huge (200+ year old) pines were in the forests as well as an even mix of younger pines. Now, the forests are nearly impenetrable, a condition that may be sustainable for a few decades when the trees are small... however, when they mature, there is NOT enough water for them. Pines kill bark beetles by pushing them out with sap, and when they are water stressed, they can not do this as effectively.

Why are the trees so dense now? Well, most people believe it is because of fire suppression (most ponderosa pine forests probably burned through the understory at least every 10 years and now almost never burn with low intensity fires) and because of large scale clear cutting which led to a flush of many trees germinating at the same time. So, in California, this is a major cause of the bark beetle problem.

Is climate change an issue too? It is very likely that it is. The 'drought' the southwest is in is a routine drought of the sort we have every hundred years or so. However, snow levels are on average higher than they have been in the historic past (and maybe the last 100,000 years depending on who you ask), giving the drought a bigger impact. I do also believe the lack of freezes to kill the beetles is a factor here as well.

Also, pine bark beetles are a natural occurrence and definitely have killed large areas of forest in the past. However, this infestation, stretching across a huge area of the continent, is much larger than what you would see in 'normal' natural conditions. It probably happened in the past during other times of climate change, such as the end of the last ice age... Ponderosa Pine and other pines covered a much larger of low elevation in California during the ice age, and as the climate dried and warmed, something killed the trees.. probably bark beetles.
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204. Patrap
2:43 PM CDT on May 29, 2007
WAVETRAK - Northern Atlantic Sector Link
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202. hurricane23
3:26 PM EDT on May 29, 2007
Winds are at 30kts with 02E but futher intensification seems llikely if the trend continues.Steering currents are also weak so basically just drifting around for now.
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200. NRAamy
12:22 PM PDT on May 29, 2007

I'd eat pancakes every day if I could! But, then I'd look a little piggly wiggly myself!!

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198. southbeachdude
7:20 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
WOW...FLBoy. That would be quite a soaker this weekend.
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197. LowerCal
12:18 PM PDT on May 29, 2007
Posted By: DeSkipper at 10:23 AM PDT on May 29, 2007.
... I live in the middle of the largest Ponderosa pine forest in the world. I expect that this area has been forested for many, many centuries yet one looks around and sees that the vast majority of growth is far less than one hundred years old...

"... Ponderosa pine is a fairly long-lived tree, as are most evergreen trees. They live to be about 300 to 500 years old ..."

So you may have something there but you'd want to account for this also,

"... Ponderosa pine is the second most important softwood for lumber production in the United States..."
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196. airman45
7:14 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
Still eating those pancakes, Amy?
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195. G35Wayne
7:18 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
any computer models for 91E???
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194. hurricane23
3:18 PM EDT on May 29, 2007
FLboy that is impressive if it pans out.
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193. ForecasterColby
7:16 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
Low near Bermuda is a pretty sight, but not any threat for tropical development. No low-level presence and the water is way, way too cold.
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192. NRAamy
12:13 PM PDT on May 29, 2007

Someone said Wiggly?

How about Piggly Wiggly?

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190. keywestdingding
7:02 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
is it me or is the time wrong on this site. it might be 7:02 pm in the middle of the atlantic, but i thought this site was based in chicago or close to there. oh does anyone know how cool the ocean has got since the high has been there?
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189. franck
7:06 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
That was due to some folks on the southern coast having 12 toes. Inbreeding thang...

Just kiiding...lay off..I'm southern too (ten toes) Well, there is that little protruions..but that doesn't count!!
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188. Patrap
2:04 PM CDT on May 29, 2007
NOLA radar..composite view Link
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187. Patrap
2:01 PM CDT on May 29, 2007
Winds to 38knts in the low swirlie..LOLLink
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186. hcubed
7:01 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
30 ft storm surge from Katrina.

MAN, that's a lot of toe wigglin'

Ya'll knock it off!
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184. Patrap
1:57 PM CDT on May 29, 2007
Compare that live radar shot to this of Hurricane Cindy in 05..near the same spot. Link
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183. Inyo
6:55 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
hmm.... the e-pac season is not turning out to be 'mild' so far. Perhaps it's that pool of warmer than average water north of the La Nina area. Speaking of which, La Nina looked alive and well in today's weekly update. Too bad.
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182. Patrap
1:56 PM CDT on May 29, 2007
Closet thing youll see to a tropical entity for a few days yet. Link
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181. Patrap
1:54 PM CDT on May 29, 2007
A low level swirl embedded south of NOLA near Grand Isle is coming ashore...Link
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180. benirica
6:45 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
wait im a bit lost... is there a wave worth watching in the atlantic between the caribbean and africa or is it just a cluster of thunderstorms in that picture posted earlier??
and is there something forming in the GOM??
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178. Yamson
6:39 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
Posted By: henryfaust at 6:31 PM GMT on May 29, 2007.
...The author (Visser) states the mixing efficiency of small organisms (e.g. krill) is extremely low and most of the mechanical energy they impart to the ocean water is nearly immediately disssipated as heat...

I have to agree with this statement. Think about it: fish, krill, whales, etc. are swimming in all sorts of directions, and displacing water in all sorts of directions. The resultant net displacement is probably pretty close to zero, or certainly negligible when compared to other thermal forces.

Now there are cases where certain fish and other creatures naturally prefer to swim against the current (maybe you have seen this example in an exhibit at an aquarium). But in those cases, the fish are displacing just enough water to remain stationary. Essentially they are just overcoming the hydrodynamic force enough, balacing out the force of water moving. They are slowing down the current due to friction if anything.
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177. Patrap
1:48 PM CDT on May 29, 2007
OMG!..they put Wiggly Toes in the GOM!...e
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176. franck
6:42 PM GMT on May 29, 2007, are you crazy? Don't put that stuff in peoples' heads. Those wave heights would increase ten feet, and then where would we be?
Nothing feeds a storm more than simultaneous toe wiggling..
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175. hurricane23
2:41 PM EDT on May 29, 2007
If anything were to form in my opinion it will likely be non-tropical in nature.Also the rains forcasted by the GFS may be a little on the high side.
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174. IKE
1:38 PM CDT on May 29, 2007
Posted By: hcubed at 1:32 PM CDT on May 29, 2007.
So let's see if I got this right...

If everybody went out to the coast, stood in the water, and wiggled their toes, then we will affect the ocean currents?

I live on the Gulf Coast. What would that do to the blob?

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173. Patrap
1:39 PM CDT on May 29, 2007
GOES Water Vapor Loop Link
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172. hurricane23
2:32 PM EDT on May 29, 2007
Rain chances look good so far for late this week as tropical moisture works it way up from the caribbean.I see a possible rainy weekend for south florida but nothing tropical in nature.

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171. hcubed
6:32 PM GMT on May 29, 2007
So let's see if I got this right...

If everybody went out to the coast, stood in the water, and wiggled their toes, then we will affect the ocean currents?

I live on the Gulf Coast. What would that do to the blob?
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Dr. Masters co-founded wunderground in 1995. He flew with the NOAA Hurricane Hunters 1986-1990. Co-blogging with him: Bob Henson, @bhensonweather

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