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Climate Modelers Have ACCE in the Hole

September/October 1998

Bobbing in the Atlantic Ocean are hundreds of floats that may make it possible to predict global climate patterns decades in advance. The floats are part of the NSF-supported Atlantic Circulation and Climate Experiment (ACCE).

Climate is an ever-changing dance performed by two huge systems, the atmosphere and the ocean. Interactions between the systems are key to anticipating longer-period climate changes.

Since 1997, researchers have tossed overboard hundreds of data-gathering floats. The floats sink to a preset depth of 1,000 meters (the bottom of the ocean layer most in contact with the atmosphere). After 10 days, they ascend. On the way up, they measure such water properties as temperature and salinity. At the surface, the floats send information to a satellite, enabling scientists to track where this layer of ocean has traveled and the amount of heat and salt it carried.

ACCE researcher Russ Davis of Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Breck Owens of Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute have deployed about 150 floats in the subpolar gyre (or vortex) of the North Atlantic. Among their findings: an unexpected direct path by which Labrador Sea Water enters the subpolar gyre. The floats are efficient and reliable despite the harsh environment, says Davis. "This means they are ready for routine and widespread use in a global observing system."

Climate modelers are using this information to constrain and improve their models in real time. "It's thrilling," says ACCE team member James Carton, a University of Maryland oceanographer. "Meteorologists have been playing this game for a long time, but the oceanographers have had so little data and so little confidence in their models that we've hesitated to make long-term predictions."

According to Eric Itsweire, associate program director of NSF's Physical Oceanography Program, this work has generated excitement throughout the field. Some might even think of the new experience as the oceanographic equivalent of floating on air.

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