A new study focusing on the Southern Ocean by scientists from the University of New South Wales, Australia, in tandem with researchers from the University of Paderborn and the Technical University of Dresden in Germany, has found previously unknown gyres that could play a massive part in the planet’s climate.
“The water in the gyres does not mix well with the rest of the ocean, so for long periods these gyres can trap pollutants, nutrients, drifting plants and animals, and become physical barriers that divert even major ocean currents,” says Dr Gary Froyland, a UNSW mathematician.
“In effect, they provide a kind of skeleton for global ocean flows. We’re only just beginning to get a grip on understanding their size, scale and functions, but we are sure that they have a major effect on marine biology and on the way that heat and carbon are distributed around the planet by the oceans.”
An oceanic gyre, according to Wikipedia, is any manner of swirling vortex. There are many large gyres that are constantly affecting the planet’s climate. The best known major gyre is the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, which includes the Gulf Stream.
Fellow researcher Professor Matthew England, co-director of the UNSW Climate Change Research Centre, explains the Gulf Stream. “This current pumps massive amounts of heat towards Europe, warming the atmosphere and giving the region a relatively mild climate: to see how important that is, you only have to compare Portugal’s climate to that of Nova Scotia, in Canada, which as roughly the same latitude,” says Professor England.
“After releasing heat to the atmosphere the waters re-circulate toward the equator, where they regain heat and rejoin the flow into the Gulf Stream. In this way the ocean’s gyres play a fundamental role in pumping heat poleward, and cooler waters back to the tropics. This moderates the planet’s extremes in climate in a profound way, reducing the equator-to-pole temperature gradients that would otherwise persist on an ocean-free planet.”
Given that these gyres are able to hide from traditional methods of detection, some of the influence they exert could have been missed as well.