Polar oceans in a changing climate

Most of Earth’s surface is blue or white, but how much of each would depend on the time of observation. Our planet has been through phases of snowball (all frozen), greenhouse (all liquid seas) and icehouse (frozen and liquid). Even during current icehouse conditions, the extent of ice versus water has changed considerably between ice ages and interglacial periods. Water has been vital for life on Earth and has driven and been influenced by transitions between greenhouse and icehouse. However, neither the possession of water nor having liquid and frozen seas are unique to Earth (Figure 1). Frozen water oceans on the moons Enceladus and Europa (and possibly others) and the liquid and frozen hydrocarbon oceans on Titan probably represent the most likely areas to find extraterrestrial life. We know very little about life in Earth’s polar oceans, yet they are the engine of the thermohaline ‘conveyor-belt’, driving global circulation of heat, oxygen, carbon and nutrients as well as setting sea level through change in ice-mass balance. In regions of polar seas, where surface water is particularly cold and dense, it sinks to generate a tropic-ward flow on the ocean floor of the Pacific, Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Cold water holds more gas, so this sinking water exports O2 and nutrients, thereby supporting life in the deep sea, as well as soaking up CO2 from the atmosphere. Water from mid-depths at lower latitudes flows in to replace the sinking polar surface water. This brings heat. The poles are cold because they receive the least energy from the sun, and this extreme light climate varies on many different time scales. To us, the current warm, interglacial conditions seem normal, yet such phases have represented only ∼10% of Homo sapiens’ existence. Variations in Earth’s orbit (so called ‘Milankovitch cycles’) have driven cyclical alternation of glaciations (ice ages) and warmer interglacials. Despite this, Earth’s polar regions have been our planet’s most environmentally constant surface regions for several millions of years, with most land ice-covered and much of the ocean seasonally freezing. The two poles have much in common, such as light climate, temperature and water viscosity, winter calm and summer (iceberg and storm) disturbance and resources. However, they are also regions of striking contrasts: the Arctic Ocean is near surrounded by land compared with the Antarctic continent, which is surrounded by the Southern Ocean. Polar oceans contrast in size, age, isolation, depth, oceanography, biology and human factors, such as governance and human habitation. The simplest foodwebs with the smallest residents live on the 1% of Antarctica that is ice free, whilst the largest animals that have ever lived on Earth (Blue and Fin whales) feed in the Arctic and Southern Oceans.


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Authors: Barnes, David K.A. ORCIDORCID record for David K.A. Barnes, Tarling, Geraint A. ORCIDORCID record for Geraint A. Tarling

On this site: David Barnes, Geraint Tarling
1 June, 2017
Current Biology / 27
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