European researchers recently discovered a bulging mass of fresh water currently growing in the western Arctic Ocean that could wreak havoc on Europe’s climate if it enters the Atlantic Ocean. The bulge currently holds about 10% of the fresh water in the Arctic Ocean – it consists of water from the Eurasian rivers that feed the Arctic Ocean being concentrated and spun in a clockwise motion by the powerful Beaufort Gyre, causing the surface of the ocean to rise by 2 centimeters per year.

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The volume of fresh water stored in the Arctic has increased by roughly 5,000 cubic miles between 1990 and 2010 because of a prevailing anti-cyclonic wind (meaning clockwise above the Equator). The water is spun and held in the center of an anti-cyclone which domes the surface of the ocean. If the winds reverse, which they sometimes do, the water could be released from the gyre and might disrupt Atlantic water currents which bring warmer water up from the south to give Europe its temperate winter weather. “When you have clockwise rotation – the fresh water is stored. If the wind goes the other way – and that has happened in the past – then the fresh water can be pushed to the margins of the Arctic Ocean. If the spin-up starts to spin down, the fresh water could be released. It could go to the rest of the Arctic Ocean or even leave the Arctic Ocean,” Dr Katharine Giles from the Centre for Polar Observation and Modelling (CPOM) at University College London and lead author of the study told the BBC.

The development of the Beaufort Gyre has become much more drastic over the second half of the study and Giles’ team believes that could be because of the weakening of the sea-ice cover in the Arctic. They believe that the broken pieces of ice are acting as sails to drag the fresh water from the Eurasian rivers to the Beaufort Gyre. With this hypothesis an even darker mystery looms and that is whether this mixing of ocean water could disturb warmer water that has historically laid separate under the Arctic circle — caused naturally by the Earth releasing methane and other natural phenomenon. The water has traditionally not been disturbed because of a great layer of colder water that keeps it from being affected by surface winds. However, Giles’ team believes that as the ice breaks up we could see a mixing of all of the layers of Arctic water and if that lower layer of warmer water were brought to the surface it could expedite the melting of the sea-ice cover. The melting of the sea-ice cover could result in the loss of shoreline worldwide due to the rise of Earth’s sea level.

Giles’ team continues to monitor the ice sheets with Cryosat-2, the first satellite launched by the European Space Agency solely to study polar ice.

+ The Center for Polar Observation and Modelling

Via The BBC