Scientists have discovered a rapid change in the temperature and salinity of deep waters in the Southern Ocean that could have a major impact on global climate, the team's leader said Thursday.
Australian Steve Rintoul said the multinational group of researchers had found that waters at the bottom of the Southern Ocean were cooler and less salty than they were 10 years ago.
The size and speed of the change surprised the scientists and could indicate a slowdown in the flow of deep water currents, he said.
"Ocean circulation is a big influence on global climate, so it is critical that we understand why this is happening and why it is happening so quickly," Rintoul said after he and his team docked Thursday at Hobart on the Australian island state of Tasmania.
"We really need to dig into this much more than we were able to do on the ship to try to be more definitive about whether this is climate change or a natural climate cycle," he said.
The team sampled 3,000 kilometres of the Southern Ocean basin during an eight-week expedition aboard the Australian Antarctic Division's research ship Aurora Australis.
Their findings added new urgency to the study of climate change, he said.
"It's another indication that the climate is capable of changing and is changing now," he said.
"What we need to do is sort out if this is human-induced change and if so, how rapidly is the climate going to change and what will the impacts of that change be?" He said.
The new findings emerged a day after the UN's Kyoto Protocol on climate change came into force. The treaty aims to cut production of so-called greenhouse gases believed responsible for a warming of the Earth's climate.
During its expedition, the Australian-led team released 19 free-floating ocean robots known as Argo floats, which are designed to drift with ocean currents to better measure temperature and salinity.
The floats, part of an international ocean-monitoring effort, drift about 2,000 meters (6,600 feet) underwater and surface every 10 days to deliver findings.
Rintoul said the Argos would provide a huge boost to climate research.
"They will revolutionise how we understand the ocean, in particular to determining climate change and shorter climate cycles," he said.
"One of the real challenges for us when we try to answer the question of 'is this climate change?' Is that we only have measurements from a few southern snapshots," he said.
"We haven't measured it continuously in time so it's hard for us to tell the difference between a cycle, something moving up and down, and a long-term trend. That's the real challenge."
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