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National Science Foundation

Sea | Background

The ocean covers roughly 71 percent of Earth's surface and hosts some of its most productive ecosystems. Sea currents and surface temperature drive weather patterns and create the climate patterns we know today. Evaporation from its surface accounts for most of the precipitation that falls on Earth. The ocean's ability to absorb and store energy allows it to serve as a buffer against extreme climatic swings.

NSF-supported researchers have long sought accurate models of the properties and circulation of the world's oceans because of the important role they play in our planet's climate. Researchers know that the sea is as essential to a global climate model, such as the NSF-supported Community Climate System Model (CCSM), as the atmosphere itself.

The warming or cooling of the ocean's surface can have far-flung effects on the atmosphere. The ocean surface and the air above it exchange heat and moisture, a process driven by the temperature difference between the water and the air. This exchange helps drive atmospheric circulation. For example, the "El Niño" phenomenon is associated with the extent of warm water extending across the tropical Pacific, which helps to steer local storms and upper-level winds, thereby shaping climate across much of the globe. Researchers use CCSM and other global climate models to predict El Niño events, which can have profound impacts on human activities.

NSF-sponsored investigators have deployed instrumentation to characterize the gas fluxes between the ocean and atmosphere, with the aim of improving sea-air exchange simulations in global climate models. The shipboard instrument enables the measurement of climatically relevant gas molecules, including aerosol precursors.

Earth's changing climate will significantly affect the ocean's living things. Environmental variables such as temperature and acid content directly affect an organism's physiological processes and ultimate survival. These climate-driven effects are expected to result in alterations of ecosystem structure and function over time.

NSF-supported researchers are attempting to gain an understanding of how ocean ecosystems will respond to climate and subsequent environmental changes. This research includes observational programs to sample ocean regions most critically impacted by climate variability, focusing on factors such as ocean acidification.