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Western Arctic Ocean freshwater storage increased by wind-driven spin-up of the Beaufort Gyre

Abstract

The Arctic Ocean’s freshwater budget comprises contributions from river runoff, precipitation, evaporation, sea-ice and exchanges with the North Pacific and Atlantic1. More than 70,000 km3 of freshwater2 are stored in the upper layer of the Arctic Ocean, leading to low salinities in upper-layer Arctic sea water, separated by a strong halocline from warm, saline water beneath. Spatially and temporally limited observations show that the Arctic Ocean’s freshwater content has increased over the past few decades, predominantly in the west3,4,5. Models suggest that wind-driven convergence drives freshwater accumulation6. Here we use continuous satellite measurements between 1995 and 2010 to show that the dome in sea surface height associated with the western Arctic Beaufort Gyre has been steepening, indicating spin-up of the gyre. We find that the trend in wind field curl—a measure of spatial gradients in the wind that lead to water convergence or divergence—exhibits a corresponding spatial pattern, suggesting that wind-driven convergence controls freshwater variability. We estimate an increase in freshwater storage of 8,000±2,000 km3 in the western Arctic Ocean, in line with hydrographic observations4,5, and conclude that a reversal in the wind field could lead to a spin-down of the Beaufort Gyre, and release of this freshwater to the Arctic Ocean.

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Figure 1: Arctic Ocean mean sea surface and trends in sea surface height and the wind field curl (1995–2010).
Figure 2: Variability of the sea surface height anomaly and wind field curl anomaly over the Western Arctic.
Figure 3: Change in Western Arctic freshwater content 1995–2010.

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Acknowledgements

Funding for this work was provided by a fellowship from the Natural Environment Research Council and by the National Centre for Earth Observation. Radar altimetry data was provided by the European Space Agency.

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K.A.G., S.W.L., D.J.W. and S.B. discussed the results and commented on the manuscript. K.A.G. lead the analysis, development of the paper and integration of the results. A.L.R. processed the European Space Agency data to provide raw SSH estimates.

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Correspondence to Katharine A. Giles.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Giles, K., Laxon, S., Ridout, A. et al. Western Arctic Ocean freshwater storage increased by wind-driven spin-up of the Beaufort Gyre. Nature Geosci 5, 194–197 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1379

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