Supercomputer spots Antarctic waters taking a mile-deep plunge

Imagery showed dense water falling more than a mile off the Antarctic Continental Shelf, resulting in ocean storms and underwater waves that can influence ocean currents and climate change.

AP Photo/John Weller
A lone emperor penguin stands on the edge of an iceberg drift in the Ross Sea in the Antarctic. Antarctica’s Ross Sea is often described as the most isolated and pristine ocean on Earth. New imagery captured by Australian researchers can trace cold water movement.

An Australian supercomputer can now model the movement of the coldest ocean water in the world.

The Australian Research Council’s Center of Excellence for Climate System Science used complex simulations to capture striking details that previously went untracked in the icy, cold waters of Antarctica, researchers say.

Chief Investigator Dr. Andy Hogg says the imagery showed dense water plummeting more than a mile off the Antarctic Continental Shelf, resulting in ocean storms and underwater waves spanning hundreds of feet.

The study was conducted with the help of an Australian supercomputer named Raijin, located inside Australia’s National Computational Infrastructure headquarters.

Because of its enormous processing power, the computer was able to make sense of a vast dataset to produce a model that charts the path of water. Even with its capabilities, researchers say the process took seven hours just to log one second of animation.

"Scientists who have seen the visualization have been astonished at the level of detail," Hogg says in a statement. "But this visualization is about more than communicating the wonder of science to the public. Being able to actually see how the bottom water moves in three dimensions rather than just looking at numerical, two-dimensional outputs has already opened new areas for scientific research."

Antarctica is considered the driving force behind many of the Earth's ocean currents because its deep waters are among the coldest, densest, and the most oxygenated in the world.

The recent simulation also shows how these waters disseminate around the globe. Researchers say the Antarctic’s ocean can also influence global temperatures because it can pull warm water away from the surface, dragging heat and carbon along with it, rather than up into the atmosphere.

"The inhospitable climate of Antarctica and the lack of sustained observations of the ocean in this region over a significant period of time adds to the importance of using ocean models to create visualizations like these," Hogg says.

The research team’s discovery is also tracking how wind stress, heat content, and the level of salt can influence climate. Part of their research will also focus more on how the ocean currents will affect carbon emissions.

"It helps us understand what is happening in locations that are difficult to observe and may explain why Antarctic bottom water is disappearing, becoming less saline and warmer,” Hogg says. “It may also give us important insights into a future under climate change."

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