Ocean Currents and Climate Change

Ocean and atmosphere are inextricably linked. As global climate change alters wind, precipitation and temperature patterns worldwide, ocean currents will reflect these changes in often unpredictable ways. For example, increasing wind speeds arising from larger land-ocean temperature differences may drive stronger upwelling which will change near shore ecosystems and may cause hypoxic dead zones (download press release) in some areas. Another key factor that influences ocean currents is the density of seawater. Both temperature and salinity contribute to seawater density, thus local changes in temperature and the magnitude of freshwater inputs from rivers and streams can alter near shore ocean currents.

ocean seascape

Changes in the direction and strength of nearshore currents can have profound impacts on near shore ecosystems by altering the transport / retention of contaminants, nutrients, and the marine larvae that sustain populations along the coast. PISCO’s oceanographic program is actively assessing the impacts of a changing climate on ocean currents through the development and maintenance of a nearshore ocean observing network, and by using targeted studies on nearshore phenomena such as fronts and wave driven flows. Future changes in ocean currents are being explored through regional circulation models that are validated with PISCO nearshore current and temperature data. PISCO’s efforts, in collaboration with regional ocean observing systems, provide critical information to policy and management decisions aimed to insure sustainable marine resources, and to protect threatened marine species. (PISCO PIs J. Barth, M. McManus, L. Washburn, in collaboration with CenCOOS, SCCOOS, NANOOS, Chris Edwards UCSC)

  • Nearshore Oceanographic Monitoring – Our nearshore mooring network measures currents and temperature in nearshore environments across the entire U.S. west coast and integrates with regional ocean observing systems within the region (map)

  • Nearshore Process Studies – The 2007 Biophysical Study in northern Monterey Bay examines the physics of nearshore fronts and the impacts on larval transport within the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Similar studies have been conducted in the Channel Islands, Carmel Bay and along the Oregon Coast.

  • Impacts of changing ocean currents – Using a regional ocean model (ROMS), PISCO is investigating the effects of a changing global climate on nearshore currents and marine ecosystems.


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