New Views on Ocean Currents
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August 10, 2007

New Views on Ocean Currents

Midatlantic_ridgeTrivia buffs may know that the tallest mountain on earth is not Mount Everest, but in fact Mauna Kea, a dormant volcano in the Hawaiian Islands that rises some 33,000 feet. Imagine all the currents of water that have to flow around Mauna Kea, or through any of the other thousands of undersea mountain ranges and their passes.

A landmark study led by Florida State University researcher Louis St. Laurent has begun to study ocean currents, and their impact on the wider planet. St. Laurent earned his Ph.D. from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in 1999 before joining the FSU faculty.

Better understanding of the mechanisms of mixing is crucial, says St. Laurent, an assistant professor of physical oceanography at FSU and the study's co-principal investigator, because mixing produces the overall balance of water temperatures that helps control the strength of the Gulf Stream -- the strong, warm ocean current that starts in the Gulf of Mexico, flows along the U.S. east coast to Canada and on to Europe, and plays a crucial climate role.

Oceanographers are working hard to understand how processes in the ocean help to keep the Earth's
climate stable, St. Laurent said. "We are aware that the climate is warming, but we don't yet fully understand how the changes will affect society. Our work will result in better models for predicting how the ocean will affect the climate in the future and a better understanding of sea-level rise, weather patterns such as El Nino, and the impact of these events on fisheries."

St. Laurent compared the flow of seawater through underwater gullies in the Mid-Atlantic Ridge to the wind, so familiar to hikers, that blows through mountain passages on land.

St. Laurent - in collaboration with scientists from the US and France – studied the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, located roughly halfway between New York and Portugal and more than a mile down. The evidence garnered has provided the first proof that the currents sweeping through the undersea mountain ranges is creating a lot of the mixing of warm and cold water throughout the Atlantic.

Described as being just like mixing milk or cream in to your coffee, the mixing of warm water is ‘stirred’ together with the colder ocean waters that run along the seabed. This mixing is what keeps the balance of temperatures that makes the Gulf Stream – the current of water that runs along the east coast of America and Canada and deposits itself out across Europe – one of the most important features of our planets oceans.

Without the distribution and diffusion of water that the Gulf Stream provides, warmer water would gather rather than being maneuvered throughout the entire ocean, and the strength of the Gulf Stream would diminish. The information gathered by the team will be used for models that will help predict the effect the global warming will take on our planet. The more detailed the information gathered from research teams like St. Laurent’s, the more detailed the answers will be.

As a side note, if you are interested in knowing just how powerful it is down there, with the currents rushing through the Mid-Atlantic Ridge, here’s a little example. Your average light bulb is 100 watts of energy output. The energy produced by the turbulence of the Mid-Atlantic Ridge currents packs a whallop equal to 5 million watts of energy output. The first nuclear power station went in to operation on June 27, 1954 – it put out the same amount of energy.

FSU Oceans Source

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