By Dauna Coulter
Last year, when NASA launched the Aquarius/SAC-D satellite carrying the first sensor for measuring sea salt from space, scientists expected the measurements to have unparalleled sensitivity. Yet the fine details it’s revealing about ocean saltiness are surprising even the Aquarius team.
“We have just four months of data, but we’re already seeing very rich detail in surface salinity patterns,” says principal investigator Gary Lagerloef of Earth & Space Research in Seattle. “We’re finding that Aquarius can monitor even small scale changes such as specific river outflow and its influence on the ocean.”
Using one of the most sensitive microwave radiometers ever built, Aquarius can sense as little as 0.2 parts salt to 1,000 parts water. That’s about like a dash of salt in a gallon jug of water.
“You wouldn’t even taste it,” says Lagerloef. “Yet Aquarius can detect that amount from 408 miles above the Earth. And it’s working even better than expected.”
Salinity is critical because it changes the density of surface seawater, and density controls the ocean currents that move heat around our planet. A good example is the Gulf Stream, which carries heat to higher latitudes and moderates the climate.
“When variations in density divert ocean currents, weather patterns like temperature and rainfall are affected. In turn, precipitation and evaporation, and fresh water from river outflow and melt ice determine salinity. It’s an intricately connected cycle.”
The atmosphere is the ocean’s partner. The freshwater exchange between the atmosphere and the ocean dominates the global water cycle. Seventy-eight percent of global rainfall occurs over the ocean, and 85 percent of global evaporation is from the ocean. An accurate picture of the ocean’s salinity will help scientists better understand the profound ocean/atmosphere coupling that determines climate variability.
“Ocean salinity has been changing,” says Lagerloef. “Decades of data from ships and buoys tell us so. Some ocean regions are seeing an increase in salinity, which means more fresh water is being lost through evaporation. Other areas are getting more rainfall and therefore lower salinity. We don’t know why. We just know something fundamental is going on in the water cycle.”
With Aquarius’s comprehensive look at global salinity, scientists will have more clues to put it all together. Aquarius has collected as many sea surface salinity measurements in the first few months as the entire 125-year historical record from ships and buoys.
“By this time next year, we’ll have met two of our goals: a new global map of annual average salinity and a better understanding of the seasonal cycles that determine climate.”
Stay tuned for the salty results. Read more about the Aquarius mission at aquarius.nasa.gov.
Other NASA oceanography missions are Jason-1 (studying ocean surface topography), Jason-2 (follow-on to Jason-1), Jason-3 (follow-on to Jason-2, planned for launch in 2014), and Seawinds on the QuikSCAT satellite (measures wind speeds over the entire ocean). The GRACE mission (Gravity Recovery and Climate Experiment), among its other gravitational field studies, monitors fresh water supplies underground. All these missions, including Aquarius, are sponsors of a fun and educational ocean game for kids called “Go with the Flow” at spaceplace.nasa.gov/ocean-currents.
This article was provided by the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, under a contract with the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.
Aquarius produced this map of global ocean salinity. It is a composite of the first two and a half weeks of data. Yellow and red represent areas of higher salinity, with blues and purples indicating areas of lower salinity.