Scripps Team Discovers Link Between Waves and Climate

Researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography released the conclusions of a five-year project Monday, explaining the impact of ocean whitecaps on global climate — a relationship that has never been considered in the makings of previous climate models used to predict and explain climate change.

courtesy of University Communications

Scripps scientists Robert Frouin and Sam Iacobellis and their collaborator Pierre-Yves Deschamps of the Laboratoire d’Optique Atmospherique in France, studied the effects of whitecaps, which form when wave crests break, and how their presence can affect the amount of radiation that reaches the surface of the ocean.

Under conditions like a clear, cloudless sky and great wind speed, whitecaps can occur and can reflect solar radiation away from the surface of the ocean. The levels of reflected radiation have been recorded as high as .7 watts per meter squared in the Indian Ocean.

According to Iacobellis, this is particularly significant because in such cases, “”whitecaps might be important players in evaluating how regions respond to climate change.””

According to Frouin, the next logical step in the continuation of their studies is to create climate models and compare how the presence or absence of whitecaps affects different models.

“”Hopefully we’ve shown that whitecaps should be included in climate models,”” Iacobellis stated.

Frouin explains, “”The next step is to run climate models with and without the whitecap effect on surface albedo, and analyze the differences between the results of the two runs.””

Frouin also said that these experiments may help explain how whitecaps and global warming are related.

“”This [climate model] will quantify the impact of whitecaps on climate and climate change; how whitecaps might edge off global warming,”” he said.

However, Frouin noted that pinpointing whether greenhouse gases and global warming actually affect wind speed and the presence of whitecaps, which in turn determine how much radiation whitecaps reflect, is uncertain.

He acknowledged that in comparison to certain greenhouse gases, the presence of whitecaps and their ability to produce climate change is small. However, Frouin notes that the whitecaps may play a role in climate change.

“”In contrast to well-mixed greenhouse gases, whitecaps are more localized and their forcing may be much larger on regional and seasonal scales, with definite effects on climate,”” Frouin said.

Nevertheless, the surface absorption of solar radiation is of concern to Frouin and Iacobellis because they also study phytoplankton and their ability to absorb solar radiation that, if unabsorbed by the phytoplankton, would serve to warm the earth.

Although the results of their study have been published since mid-April, Frouin believes that the reaction of his peers cannot yet be determined.

“”It is a little early yet to gauge the reaction from the research community,”” Frouin said. “”We hope that our results will encourage climate modelers to include the radiative effects of whitecaps into their computational models.””