Letter

Nature 447, 577-580 (31 May 2007) | doi:10.1038/nature05785; Received 5 January 2007; Accepted 30 March 2007

Observational evidence for an ocean heat pump induced by tropical cyclones

Ryan L. Sriver1 & Matthew Huber1,2

  1. Department of Earth and Atmospheric Sciences,
  2. Purdue Climate Change Research Center, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana 47907, USA

Correspondence to: Matthew Huber1,2 Correspondence and requests for materials should be addressed to M.H. (Email: huberm@purdue.edu).

Ocean mixing affects global climate and the marine biosphere because it is linked to the ocean's ability to store and transport heat1 and nutrients2. Observations have constrained the magnitude of upper ocean mixing associated with certain processes3, 4, but mixing rates measured directly3, 5 are significantly lower than those inferred from budget analyses6, suggesting that other processes may play an important role. The winds associated with tropical cyclones are known to lead to localized mixing of the upper ocean7, 8, 9, but the hypothesis that tropical cyclones are important mixing agents at the global scale10 has not been tested. Here we calculate the effect of tropical cyclones on surface ocean temperatures by comparing surface temperatures before and after storm passage, and use these results to calculate the vertical mixing induced by tropical cyclone activity. Our results indicate that tropical cyclones are responsible for significant cooling and vertical mixing of the surface ocean in tropical regions. Assuming that all the heat that is mixed downwards is balanced by heat transport towards the poles, we calculate that approximately 15 per cent of peak ocean heat transport may be associated with the vertical mixing induced by tropical cyclones. Furthermore, our analyses show that the magnitude of this mixing is strongly related to sea surface temperature, indicating that future changes in tropical sea surface temperatures may have significant effects on ocean circulation and ocean heat transport that are not currently accounted for in climate models.

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