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Concept: Physical oceanography


Biological processes and physical oceanography are often integrated in numerical modelling of marine fish larvae, but rarely in statistical analyses of spatio-temporal observation data. Here, we examine the relative contribution of inter-annual variability in spawner distribution, advection by ocean currents, hydrography and climate in modifying observed distribution patterns of cod larvae in the Lofoten-Barents Sea. By integrating predictions from a particle-tracking model into a spatially explicit statistical analysis, the effects of advection and the timing and locations of spawning are accounted for. The analysis also includes other environmental factors: temperature, salinity, a convergence index and a climate threshold determined by the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO). We found that the spatial pattern of larvae changed over the two climate periods, being more upstream in low NAO years. We also demonstrate that spawning distribution and ocean circulation are the main factors shaping this distribution, while temperature effects are different between climate periods, probably due to a different spatial overlap of the fish larvae and their prey, and the consequent effect on the spatial pattern of larval survival. Our new methodological approach combines numerical and statistical modelling to draw robust inferences from observed distributions and will be of general interest for studies of many marine fish species.

Concepts: Scientific method, Mathematics, Oceanography, Physical oceanography, Atlantic Ocean, Ocean, Ocean current, North Atlantic oscillation


The ocean flows because it is forced by winds, tides and exchanges of heat and freshwater with the overlying atmosphere and cryosphere. To achieve a state where the defining properties of the ocean (such as its energy and momentum) do not continuously increase, some form of dissipation or damping is required to balance the forcing. The ocean circulation is thought to be forced primarily at the large scales characteristic of ocean basins, yet to be damped at much smaller scales down to those of centimetre-sized turbulence. For decades, physical oceanographers have sought to comprehend the fundamentals of this fractal puzzle: how the ocean circulation is driven, how it is damped and how ocean dynamics connects the very different scales of forcing and dissipation. While in the last two decades significant advances have taken place on all these three fronts, the thrust of progress has been in understanding the driving mechanisms of ocean circulation and the ocean’s ensuing dynamical response, with issues surrounding dissipation receiving comparatively little attention. This choice of research priorities stems not only from logistical and technological difficulties in observing and modelling the physical processes responsible for damping the circulation, but also from the untested assumption that the evolution of the ocean’s state over time scales of concern to humankind is largely independent of dissipative processes. In this article, I illustrate some of the key advances in our understanding of ocean circulation that have been achieved in the last 20 years and, based on a range of evidence, contend that the field will soon reach a stage in which uncertainties surrounding the arrest of ocean circulation will pose the main challenge to further progress. It is argued that the role of the circulation in the coupled climate system will stand as a further focal point of major advances in understanding within the next two decades, supported by the drive of physical oceanography towards a more operational enterprise by contextual factors. The basic elements that a strategy for the future must have to foster progress in these two areas are discussed, with an overarching emphasis on the promotion of curiosity-driven fundamental research against opposing external pressures and on the importance of upholding fundamental research as the apex of education in the field.

Concepts: Oceanography, Future, Climate, Physical oceanography, Thermodynamics, Force, Ocean, Dissipation


In stratified lakes internal waves has great ecological significance since they affect mixing, resuspension, material transport, chemical regime and ecosystem productivity. Reconstruction of spatio-temporal heterogeneity of the basin scale internal waves and their accurate parameterization are important tasks. The effect of internal Kelvin waves (IKWs) on spatiotemporal variability of the mid-frequency (1 kHz) sound field in a deep lake using geoacoustic modeling is studied. It is demonstrated that IKWs cause significant fluctuations of the sound field, such as horizontal shift of interference structure. This shift can be easily measured in situ and used for practical reconstruction of IKW parameters. Overall, it is suggested implementing the low-cost geoacoustic methodology for accurate parameterization of the basin scale internal waves and studying their dynamics.

Concepts: Diffraction, Lake, Physical oceanography, Frequency, Wavelength, In situ, Waves, The Basin, Victoria


“Seismic oceanography” (SO)-the use of low-frequency marine seismic reflection data to image thermohaline fine-structure in the water column-began in 2003, with the publication of a paper in Science. Over the past ten years, the nascent SO community has demonstrated that reflection seismology can image thermohaline fine structure, over large areas, from temperature contrasts in the ocean of only a few hundredths of a ̊C. The resulting images illuminate many diverse oceanic phenomena, including fronts, water mass boundaries, internal wave displacements, internal tide beams, eddies, turbulence, and lee waves. Beyond merely producing spectacular images of ocean structure, low-frequency reflections can be processed to produce quantitative estimates of sound speed (and thus ocean temperature), turbulence dissipation, and vertical mode structure over full ocean depths, as long as fine-structure reflections are present. Yet SO has failed to become a standard tool for physical oceanographers, partly due to disciplinary boundaries, and partly due to the perceived high expense of seismic data acquisition. I will present examples of the successes of SO and discuss approaches to meet the challenges to the adoption of SO as a commonly used technique to study physical oceanographic processes.

Concepts: Fluid dynamics, Oceanography, Physical oceanography, Geology, Ocean, Seismology, Reflection seismology, Seismometer


The coastal sea levels along the Northeast Coast of North America show significant year-to-year fluctuations in a general upward trend. The analysis of long-term tide gauge records identified an extreme sea-level rise (SLR) event during 2009-10. Within this 2-year period, the coastal sea level north of New York City jumped by 128 mm. This magnitude of interannual SLR is unprecedented (a 1-in-850 year event) during the entire history of the tide gauge records. Here we show that this extreme SLR event is a combined effect of two factors: an observed 30% downturn of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation during 2009-10, and a significant negative North Atlantic Oscillation index. The extreme nature of the 2009-10 SLR event suggests that such a significant downturn of the Atlantic overturning circulation is very unusual. During the twenty-first century, climate models project an increase in magnitude and frequency of extreme interannual SLR events along this densely populated coast.

Concepts: Earth, United States, Oceanography, Physical oceanography, Atlantic Ocean, New York City, Ocean, Thermohaline circulation


In Eastern Boundary Current systems, wind-driven upwelling drives nutrient-rich water to the ocean surface, making these regions among the most productive on Earth. Regulation of productivity by changing wind and/or nutrient conditions can dramatically impact ecosystem functioning, though the mechanisms are not well understood beyond broad-scale relationships. Here, we explore bottom-up controls during the California Current System (CCS) upwelling season by quantifying the dependence of phytoplankton biomass (as indicated by satellite chlorophyll estimates) on two key environmental parameters: subsurface nitrate concentration and surface wind stress. In general, moderate winds and high nitrate concentrations yield maximal biomass near shore, while offshore biomass is positively correlated with subsurface nitrate concentration. However, due to nonlinear interactions between the influences of wind and nitrate, bottom-up control of phytoplankton cannot be described by either one alone, nor by a combined metric such as nitrate flux. We quantify optimal environmental conditions for phytoplankton, defined as the wind/nitrate space that maximizes chlorophyll concentration, and present a framework for evaluating ecosystem change relative to environmental drivers. The utility of this framework is demonstrated by (i) elucidating anomalous CCS responses in 1998-1999, 2002, and 2005, and (ii) providing a basis for assessing potential biological impacts of projected climate change.

Concepts: Climate, Weather, Physical oceanography, Ocean, Phytoplankton, Ocean current, Upwelling, California Current


Hydrothermal vent fields in the western Pacific Ocean are mostly distributed along spreading centers in submarine basins behind convergent plate boundaries. Larval dispersal resulting from deep-ocean circulations is one of the major factors influencing gene flow, diversity, and distributions of vent animals. By combining a biophysical model and deep-profiling float experiments, we quantify potential larval dispersal of vent species via ocean circulation in the western Pacific Ocean. We demonstrate that vent fields within back-arc basins could be well connected without particular directionality, whereas basin-to-basin dispersal is expected to occur infrequently, once in tens to hundreds of thousands of years, with clear dispersal barriers and directionality associated with ocean currents. The southwest Pacific vent complex, spanning more than 4,000 km, may be connected by the South Equatorial Current for species with a longer-than-average larval development time. Depending on larval dispersal depth, a strong western boundary current, the Kuroshio Current, could bridge vent fields from the Okinawa Trough to the Izu-Bonin Arc, which are 1,200 km apart. Outcomes of this study should help marine ecologists estimate gene flow among vent populations and design optimal marine conservation plans to protect one of the most unusual ecosystems on Earth.

Concepts: Plate tectonics, Physical oceanography, Pacific Ocean, Ocean, Marine debris, Ocean current, Convergent boundary, Ocean currents


In the austral summer of 2011 we undertook an investigation of three volcanic highs in the Central Bransfield Basin, Antarctica, in search of hydrothermal activity and associated fauna to assess changes since previous surveys and to evaluate the extent of hydrothermalism in this basin. At Hook Ridge, a submarine volcanic edifice at the eastern end of the basin, anomalies in water column redox potential (E(h)) were detected close to the seafloor, unaccompanied by temperature or turbidity anomalies, indicating low-temperature hydrothermal discharge. Seepage was manifested as shimmering water emanating from the sediment and from mineralised structures on the seafloor; recognisable vent endemic fauna were not observed. Pore fluids extracted from Hook Ridge sediment were depleted in chloride, sulfate and magnesium by up to 8% relative to seawater, enriched in lithium, boron and calcium, and had a distinct strontium isotope composition ((87)Sr/(86)Sr  = 0.708776 at core base) compared with modern seawater ((87)Sr/(86)Sr ≈0.70918), indicating advection of hydrothermal fluid through sediment at this site. Biogeochemical zonation of redox active species implies significant moderation of the hydrothermal fluid with in situ diagenetic processes. At Middle Sister, the central ridge of the Three Sisters complex located about 100 km southwest of Hook Ridge, small water column E(h) anomalies were detected but visual observations of the seafloor and pore fluid profiles provided no evidence of active hydrothermal circulation. At The Axe, located about 50 km southwest of Three Sisters, no water column anomalies in E(h), temperature or turbidity were detected. These observations demonstrate that the temperature anomalies observed in previous surveys are episodic features, and suggest that hydrothermal circulation in the Bransfield Strait is ephemeral in nature and therefore may not support vent biota.

Concepts: Water, Fluid dynamics, Calcium, Physical oceanography, Liquid, Fluid, Hydrothermal vent, Geological processes


Accelerated warming of western boundary currents due to the strengthening of subtropical gyres has had cascading effects on coastal ecosystems and is widely expected to result in further tropicalization of temperate regions. Predicting how species and ecosystems will respond requires a better understanding of the variability in ocean warming in complex boundary current regions. Using three ≥50 year temperature records we demonstrate high variability in the magnitude and seasonality of warming in the Southwest Pacific boundary current region. The greatest rate of warming was evident off eastern Tasmania (0.20 °C decade(-1)), followed by southern New Zealand (0.10 °C decade(-1)), while there was no evidence of annual warming in northeastern New Zealand. This regional variability in coastal warming was also evident in the satellite record and is consistent with expected changes in regional-scale circulation resulting from increased wind stress curl in the South Pacific subtropical gyre. Warming trends over the satellite era (1982-2016) were considerably greater than the longer-term trends, highlighting the importance of long-term temperature records in understanding climate change in coastal regions. Our findings demonstrate the spatial and temporal complexity of warming patterns in boundary current regions and challenge widespread expectations of tropicalization in temperate regions under future climate change.

Concepts: Climate, Weather, Physical oceanography, Climate change, New Zealand, Marine debris, Region, Boundary current


Climate change has prompted an earlier arrival of spring in numerous ecosystems. It is uncertain whether such changes are occurring in Eastern Boundary Current Upwelling ecosystems, because these regions are subject to natural decadal climate variability, and regional climate models predict seasonal delays in upwelling. To answer this question, the phenology of 43 species of larval fishes was investigated between 1951 and 2008 off southern California. Ordination of the fish community showed earlier phenological progression in more recent years. Thirty-nine percent of seasonal peaks in larval abundance occurred earlier in the year, whereas 18% were delayed. The species whose phenology became earlier were characterized by an offshore, pelagic distribution, whereas species with delayed phenology were more likely to reside in coastal, demersal habitats. Phenological changes were more closely associated with a trend toward earlier warming of surface waters rather than decadal climate cycles, such as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation and North Pacific Gyre Oscillation. Species with long-term advances and delays in phenology reacted similarly to warming at the interannual time scale as demonstrated by responses to the El Niño Southern Oscillation. The trend toward earlier spawning was correlated with changes in sea surface temperature (SST) and mesozooplankton displacement volume, but not coastal upwelling. SST and upwelling were correlated with delays in fish phenology. For species with 20th century advances in phenology, future projections indicate that current trends will continue unabated. The fate of species with delayed phenology is less clear due to differences between Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change models in projected upwelling trends.

Concepts: Climate, Physical oceanography, Great Pacific Garbage Patch, Climate change, Global warming, Climate pattern, Ocean currents, California Current