A view from the RRS James Clark Ross in the northern Weddell Sea. Surface buoyancy fluxes and gas exchange in the lead-filled, marginal ice zone around Antarctica remain poorly constrained because of a lack of observations. Credit: Andrew Thompson

Over the past 15 years, physical and biogeochemical studies have established that the Southern Ocean, the region surrounding Antarctica, plays a disproportionately large role in modulating Earth’s climate. Dense water masses that reside near the ocean bottom throughout mid- and low-latitude basins reach the surface in the Southern Ocean through a combination of wind- and eddy-induced transport. These waters are exposed to heat, freshwater fluxes, and atmospheric gases, which ventilate the deep-ocean reservoirs of heat and carbon.

Research during the past 5 years has increasingly shown that a two-dimensional, cross-sectional view of the Southern Ocean is too simplistic.

This region is also critical for the biogeochemical conditioning of nutrients that will be available for primary production (synthesis of organic compounds from carbon dioxide) at lower latitudes. These processes are typically linked to the large-scale depth-latitude structure of the Southern Ocean’s density and other property fields, such as temperature, dissolved oxygen, and nutrients.

Research during the past 5 years has increasingly shown that a two-dimensional, cross-sectional view of the Southern Ocean is too simplistic. Energy content peaks at mesoscales, 10–20 kilometers in the Southern Ocean, but the amplitude and organization of these mesoscale features are not uniform. Distributions of temperature, salinity, nutrients, and dissolved gases typically exhibit even greater structure and patchiness.

The functioning and evolution of Southern Ocean ecosystems and the ventilation of the ocean’s deep carbon reservoir depend on the transport of these tracers, which involves an interplay between the underlying circulation and the temporally and spatially varying tracers. The coupled variability of these fields is only beginning to be explored.

Schematic of a cyberinfrastructure-based vision for the Southern Ocean Observing System (SOOS). Marine assets would include a mixture of autonomous and nonautonomous platforms but rely increasingly on autonomous platforms over time. Credit: Meredith et al. [2013]. Used with permission.

To identify gaps in our understanding of Southern Ocean circulation, air-sea fluxes, and tracer fluxes, a workshop on Southern Ocean dynamics and biogeochemistry was held at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena this past February.

The meeting opened with overview lectures by Michael Meredith, Andy Hogg, Ric Williams, and Danny Sigman on sustained observations, the meridional overturning circulation, air-sea partitioning of carbon, and nutrient fluxes, respectively. The meeting continued over a 3-day period with shorter presentations and significant time for group discussions. Planning future observational strategies that integrate the physical and biogeochemical oceanographic communities was a key goal.

Three major research themes emerged from the meeting discussions:

  • Three-dimensional pathways influencing heat uptake, carbon sequestration, and preformed nutrients in the upper ocean. Zonal variations in mass and tracer fluxes extend throughout the water column and localize transport across the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC). It remains unclear how this localization and the three-dimensional structure of ACC transport properties will respond to a changing climate. Meeting participants also emphasized the need to explore the coupling between physics and biogeochemistry at submesoscales (10 kilometers and smaller) and its impact on setting preformed nutrient values.
  • Buoyancy forcing and gas exchange in the marginal sea ice zone. Observations needed to resolve surface processes in the region spanning the winter sea ice extent to coastal polynyas (open water surrounded by sea ice) remain sparse. Specifically, measurements are needed to determine the strength of surface buoyancy forcing and the efficiency of gas equilibration in a divergent, spatially nonuniform (e.g., lead- or gap-filled) sea ice field. These processes significantly influence the lowermost overturning cell dynamics, as well as water mass properties and carbon dioxide concentrations.
  • Shelf and slope controls on mass and tracer fluxes. Discussion focused on the need for high-resolution process modeling and better parameterizations of eddy processes over the continental shelf and slope, including localization of transport due to topographic features and the injection of nutrients, such as iron, into the water column due to flow-topography interactions.

Participants discussed observational strategies needed to provide insight into these research priorities. The group highlighted the use of heterogeneous autonomous platforms to acquire persistent (continuous) measurements that resolve seasonal variability in the dynamical processes highlighted above. As sensor development for these platforms continues, an intelligent blend of autonomous and ship-based measurements is needed to advance the science.

Sustained observations that lead to continuous time series will remain critical for detecting changes in the Southern Ocean.

Sustained observations, both oceanic and atmospheric, that lead to continuous time series will remain critical for detecting changes in the Southern Ocean. Achievement of these goals in such a challenging environment requires a coordinated, international effort.

Meeting participants and their presentations can be found on the meeting website. The workshop was supported by the Linde Center for Global Environmental Science.

—Andrew F. Thompson, Environmental Science and Engineering, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena; email: andrewt@caltech.edu; and Nicolas Cassar, Division of Earth and Ocean Sciences, Duke University, Durham, N.C.

Citation: Thompson, A. F., and N. Cassar (2015), Physical-biogeochemical coupling in the Southern Ocean, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO036829. Published on 9 October 2015.

Text © 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0
Except where otherwise noted, images are subject to copyright. Any reuse without express permission from the copyright owner is prohibited.