Project Title

Transient tracer-based Investigation of Circulation and Thermal Ocean Change

Principle Investigator

Elaine McDonagh

Project Description

Carbon dioxide produced by burning fossil fuels such as oil and gas is building up in the atmosphere and causing the planet to warm. The oceans have absorbed more than 90% of the heat trapped on the planet to date. However, this heating also causes the ocean to expand, leading to rising sea level and consequently to an increased risk to and vulnerability of people and industries located near the coast. Understanding how much sea level will change into the future allows us to plan accordingly the defences we need to install in order to safeguard the infrastructure and livelihoods of our coastal communities. Warming of the ocean is not geographically uniform however, as ocean currents move heat around the globe. This leads to contrasting changes in ocean temperature and sea level (affecting coastal communities and assets). By the end of the century, some regions may experience very large sea level rises of up to a metre while others will see far less (or even a lowering).

This science program will use observations made from research ships and computer models of the ocean to understand where the ocean takes up heat from the atmosphere and how ocean currents transport and redistribute that heat. To study ocean currents we need a ‘tracer’ – something that is placed in and moves with the flow, like a chemical dye. Although not intentionally for this purpose, three varieties of tracers have been added to the atmosphere since the 1950s and have since gradually been absorbed into the ocean, and redistributed by ocean currents. These are radioactive carbon (produced by mid 20th century nuclear bomb tests), chlorofluorocarbons (historically used in refrigerators and aerosol cans, and which caused an expansion of the Ozone Hole) and more recently sulphur-hexafluoride (formerly found in tennis balls but now predominantly used in electrical industries as an insulator).

These tracers have entered the ocean as distinct pulses at different times, forming a fortuitous experiment we can now observe. We will use high-precision equipment to measure these tracers in the Atlantic and Southern Oceans and collaborate with international partners to track their global fate. We will use these observations to estimate the rate at which heat is being absorbed and re-distributed throughout the ocean and to assess and improve climate model predictions of regional sea-level rise.

Project links to ORCHESTRA

TICTOC will be collecting data supplementary to that of the RoSES and ORCHESTRA programmes and provides context of ocean circulation patterns, as well as links to impact of sea-level rise. TICTOC are represented at the RoSES/ORCHESTRA Annual Science Meetings each summer.

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