Ocean Sciences AGU News

Earth’s Ripple Effect

The ocean’s interactions with land, air, and ice create an intricate planetary dance.

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No one was hoping to find the Gulf of Maine in the top 1%.

Recently, sea animals have been washing up stranded, many injured or dead, in record numbers on the beaches of Maine, New Hampshire, and Massachusetts. One scientist, Andrew Pershing, was studying the rate of warming in the Gulf of Maine and thought it was unusually high. He discovered something astounding when he compared the rate with global data: The gulf area is warming faster than 99% of the oceans.

Opposing currents wind past each other through the Gulf of Maine—the Labrador Current, which brings cold water south from the Arctic and along the shore, and the Gulf Stream, bringing warmer water north from the equator.

Climate change is wrecking the delicate balance of these streams. Rapidly melting ice in Greenland is pushing cool, fresh water into the Labrador. This less dense water is causing the current to lose steam as it reaches the Gulf of Maine, allowing the warm, northerly Gulf Stream to push closer to shore. Read more in our May cover story about Pershing’s and other scientists’ research as they race to predict the future that sea life faces in the Gulf of Maine.

The theme of our May issue covers instances like these, in which our planet’s oceans interact with the ice, land, and air around them, as we continue AGU’s Centennial celebration of the Earth and space sciences. The study of these dependent actions was pioneered by scientists like Roger Revelle, one of the first to connect the idea that the carbon dioxide accumulating in the atmosphere from fossil fuel burning was being absorbed by the ocean. “The Earth itself is a spaceship,” he famously said while delivering testimony to the U.S. Congress in 1957. As these ocean studies show, poisoning the air of that ship will have cascading effects on our life support systems.

Tsunamis are another important area of study when it comes to ocean-land interactions. The events are often catastrophic, but their relative rarity can cause challenges for communities that need to invest in mitigation and preparedness. In the Caribbean, tsunamis happen on average every 25 years but arrive with only a few hours’ notice to an area that is home to 40 million people. Read about a group of scientists and policy makers that recently pushed for the creation of an international collaboration focused on tsunami hazard assessment. The initiative now includes 47 countries and territories in the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico area, working to quantify risks and apply that research to action plans such as evacuation maps. If these scientists can use research to keep the issue alive in the region’s collective memory, they’ll likely save many lives—if not in this generation, then in the next.

Ocean interactions affect us in myriad ways, from regional events like ocean current dynamics or earthquake-induced tsunamis to issues that impact neighborhoods. Read about a grassroots group that is educating its community about how sea level rise is causing recurrent flooding in the town of Virginia Beach. AGU’s Thriving Earth Exchange connected the group, Stop the Flooding NOW, with a local coastal resources scientist, and together they’ve been working with their neighbors to find ways to protect thousands of homes. In February, the Virginia legislature even issued a resolution praising their work.

In this issue, Eos recognizes the work of scientists, policy makers, and community members who see the connections between ocean, ice, air, and land. This “spaceship” of ours needs you more than ever.

—Heather Goss (@heathermg), Editor in Chief, Eos

Citation: Goss, H. (2019), Earth’s ripple effect, Eos, 100, https://doi.org/10.1029/2019EO121173. Published on 01 May 2019.
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