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Study provides first-ever look at combined causes of North Atlantic and Arctic Ocean freshening

WOODS HOLE, MA -- A new analysis of 50 years of changes in freshwater inputs to the Arctic Ocean and North Atlantic may help shed light on what's behind the recently observed freshening of the North Atlantic Ocean. In a report, published in the August 25, 2006 issue of the journal, Science, MBL (Marine Biological Laboratory) senior scientist Bruce J. Peterson and his colleagues describe a first-of-its-kind effort to create a big-picture view of hydrologic trends in the Arctic. Their analysis reveals that freshwater increases from Arctic Ocean sources appear to be highly linked to a fresher North Atlantic.

"The high-latitude freshwater cycle is one of the most sensitive barometers of the impact of changes in climate and broad-scale atmospheric dynamics because of the polar amplification of the global warming signal," says Peterson. "It's easiest to measure these changes in the Arctic and the better we understand this system, the sooner we will know what is happening to the global hydrologic cycle."

The multi-disciplinary team of scientists led by Peterson calculated annual and cumulative freshwater input anomalies (deviations from expected levels) from net precipitation on the ocean surface, river discharge, net attrition of glaciers, and Arctic Ocean sea ice melt and export for the latter half of the 20th century. The scientists compared the fluxes to measured rates of freshwater accumulation in the North Atlantic during the same time period.

Their analysis showed that increasing river discharge and excess net precipitation on the ocean contributed the most freshwater (~20,000 cubic kilometers) to the Arctic and high-latitude North Atlantic. Sea ice reduction provided another ~15,000 cubic kilometers of freshwater, followed by ~2,000 cubic kilometers from melting glaciers. Together, the sum of anomalous inputs from all of the freshwater sources analyzed matched the amount and rate at which fresh water accumulated in the North A
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Contact: Gina Hebert
ghebert@mbl.edu
508-289-7725
Marine Biological Laboratory
24-Aug-2006


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