SOURCE: MIT News

DATE: October 17, 2018

SNIP: The Beaufort Gyre is an enormous, 600-mile-wide pool of swirling cold, fresh water in the Arctic Ocean, just north of Alaska and Canada. In the winter, this current is covered by a thick cap of ice. Each summer, as the ice melts away, the exposed gyre gathers up sea ice and river runoff, and draws it down to create a huge reservoir of frigid fresh water, equal to the volume of all the Great Lakes combined.

Scientists at MIT have now identified a key mechanism, which they call the “ice-ocean governor,” that controls how fast the Beaufort Gyre spins and how much fresh water it stores. In a paper published today in Geophysical Research Letters, the researchers report that the Arctic’s ice cover essentially sets a speed limit on the gyre’s spin.

If global temperatures continue to climb, the researchers expect that the mechanism governing the gyre’s spin will diminish. With no governor to limit its speed, the researchers say the gyre will likely transition into “a new regime” and eventually spill over, like an overflowing bathtub, releasing huge volumes of cold, fresh water into the North Atlantic, which could affect the global climate and ocean circulation.

Marshall and Meneghello note that, as Arctic temperatures have risen in the last two decades, and summertime ice has shrunk with each year, the speed of the Beaufort Gyre has increased. Its currents have become more variable and unpredictable, and are only slightly slowed by the return of ice in the winter.

“At some point, if this trend continues, the gyre can’t swallow all this fresh water that it’s drawing down,” Marshall says. Eventually, the levee will likely break and the gyre will burst, releasing hundreds of billions of gallons of cold, fresh water into the North Atlantic.

An increasingly unstable Beaufort Gyre could also disrupt the Arctic’s halocline — the layer of ocean water underlying the gyre’s cold freshwater, that insulates it from much deeper, warmer, and saltier water. If the halocline is somehow weakened by a more instable gyre, this could encourage warmer waters to rise up, further melting the Arctic ice.