World Ocean Circulation Experiment
Studying the ocean's role in climate change
by Carri T. Hill and Piers Chapman
Climate variability affects our daily lives. Economic and social impacts
of climate anomalies such as the recent cold weather in the northeast United
States or the flooding in Oregon can be enormous and far ranging. While
climate variability occurs naturally, it also may be driven by human activities
like greenhouse gas emissions, deforestation, and urban development.
Understanding and predicting climate changes is the goal of a broad range
of scientists. The realization that human activity can and does impact global
climate has led to renewed interest in studies of clouds, ocean circulation,
land-surface processes, volcanic activity, and atmospheric chemistry. As
part of the process, oceanographers worldwide have embraced the challenge
of understanding the ocean's role in climate change.
How does the ocean affect climate?
The upper layer of the ocean contains as much heat as the whole atmosphere.
Interplay between the two impacts us directly through changes in weather,
sea level, and more. The ocean also absorbs trace gases implicated in global
warming (particularly carbon dioxide), mitigating their immediate effects.
More importantly, however, the ocean mixes and moves water away from the
surface and redistributes it in deeper layers around the globe as part of
large-scale ocean circulation. Thus, the ocean acts as a buffer to reduce
some of the potential climatic shifts.
Unfortunately, we cannot be too sanguine. Oceanographers speculate, for
example, that circulation in the Nordic Seas could change over as short
a period as a few years. Resulting alterations in the North Atlantic may
weaken and slow the Gulf Stream, which normally delivers warm water to the
shores of northwest Europe. The ultimate result could be dramatically colder
weather in this region. Therefore, we must learn more about the global ocean
and its circulation to understand and predict its impact on Earth's climate.
Global research program has a home at Texas A&M
The World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE) is a cooperative effort by
scientists from more than 30 nations to study large-scale circulation of
the ocean. The knowledge we gain during this unprecedented program will
help unravel the role of ocean circulation in long-term climate change and
help develop models for predicting such fluctuations.
Dr. Worth D. Nowlin, Jr., Distinguished Professor at Texas A&M University,
leads the U.S. contribution to WOCE. He has been instrumental in planning
and successfully implementing the U.S. WOCE program as well as establishing
a U.S. WOCE program office located at Texas A&M.
The office coordinates diverse activities such as producing implement-ation
plans, obtaining clearances for ships to work in the exclusive economic
zones of various coastal states, arranging travel to planning meetings for
the many U.S. scientists involved in WOCE, or working with scientists throughout
the world to ensure WOCE data are collected and archived properly.
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Oceanography, Texas A&M University
Updated May 27, 1996