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Global Warming Blog

Krill, Currents Changing Climate?
Butterfly-effect on climate found from marine life
Posted October 14, 2006 by Nathan Cool

Krill According to the rationale of chaos theory, the facile flapping of a butterfly's wings in Tokyo could (hypothetically) create tornadoes in California some days later. While this butterfly effect was used obscurely in a movie by the same name starring Ashton Kutcher a few years back, this snowballing sort of notion in physics--also known as sensitive dependence on initial conditions--is certainly real and seems to be taking place across Earth's oceans right now. A new study published in the journal Science recently shows how some of the smallest and largest of our world's water-subsisting creatures may be having an effect on ocean currents, and subsequently our climate. By performing the simple action of swimming, everything from wee-sized krill to the leviathans of the deep blue seas may be imposing their influence on ocean circulations that work in synch with our weather, and quite possibly our changing climate.

The oceans are constantly churning, playing a vital role in regulating currents such as the global conveyor belt, also known as the thermohaline circulation, which I discuss in chapter 3 of Is it Hot in Here?--The simple truth about global warming. As these currents flow, a turbulent mixing of the water controls the exchange of gases from the ocean with the atmosphere above it. As cold water from the abyss is brought up to the surface, air responds with butterfly-effect like circumstances that later result in weather. These ocean circulations have long been known to have a great impact on our climate, and served as the basis for the exaggerated climate apocalypse in the movie The Day After Tomorrow. The large, circulating currents of Earth's oceans have been influential enough to be correlated to ice age events. But the ocean mixing by marine creatures has been thought to be insignificant. But this latest report in the journal Science (which you can read here) disputes this with some intriguing conclusions.

This recent study, conducted by oceanographers from the University of Victory in Canada, took place at Saanich Inlet, British Columbia. This semi-closed fjord has an impressive depth of about 1200 feet, and is home to a variety of sea life. Taking measurements in April, when winds were weak and consequent currents calm, researchers found direct correlations to movements in populations of shrimp-like creatures known as krill and the currents within the fjord. During the day, krill loiter the murky depths, but once night falls, they rise en masse to the surface to feed. Each krill alone measures barely an inch in length, but krill find power in numbers, swimming synchronously in schools as dense as 30,000 individuals per cubic meter. Monitoring the movement of krill, researchers found that these colossal clusters of crustaceans create astonishing turbulence when they ascend at night, and again when they descend before daybreak. The amount of turbulence found was shocking, on the order of 3 to 4 times that without any krill movement. Considering that these readings were measured from just one school of krill, it then becomes clear how this could influence world climate.

Earth's oceans are teeming with krill, which are feasted upon by baleen whales, whale sharks, and mantas. Humans also harvest rich schools of these tiny invertebrates with about 200,000 tons of krill fished out of the seas annually, most of which is used for aquaculture and aquarium feeds, as bait in sport fishing, or in the pharmaceutical industry. Each and every day, enormous numbers of krill rise and fall to and from the depths of Earth's oceans, creating currents in their wake. This, in a world with a changing climate, coupled with aggressive fishing industries, could have an impact on all of us, in some unsuspecting ways.

If global warming shifts weather patterns and ocean currents enough to in-turn shift food sources for krill, then krill could relocate their prodigiously populated schools. If these krill move on to proverbial greener pastures, then the currents created by them would move as well. As a result, many schools of sea-faring fish and mammals--such as tuna or whales--could move and have similar effects on shifting ocean currents. It may be possible then that weather patterns in the future could be altered by means not accounted for by climate models from the migration of not only the krill, but also by species that feed on them.

This could have quite an impact on our future climate. But what it may actually do to our weather is still much of a mystery. This new study is quite intriguing, but it, like so much in the field of climate research is filled with uncertainty and unknowns. Nevertheless, being published in the prestigious journal Science, this latest report is not mere ramblings of crackpot conspiracists or some politically thwarted think-tank. In fact, the well-known oceanographer Carl Wunsch of MIT has stated that these new findings could hold merit, and need to be discussed further. Hopefully others working in the field will feel the same. By adapting these and myriad other burgeoning findings into the climate models predicting the outcome of Earth's changing climate, we can foretell better what our world will be like in the future.

To stay abreast on other articles like this one, you can signup for the free GreenhouseTruth newsletter. Additional information on uncertainties of climate change, global temperatures, economic impacts of climate change and other topics discussed in this blog can be found in Nathan Cool's new book, Is it Hot in Here?--The simple truth about global warming. Click here to get your copy.

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