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: The Salty Seas of Earth
From: Andy Soos, ENN
Published May 19, 2011 08:16 AM

The Salty Seas of Earth

Final preparations are under way for the June 9 launch of the international Aquarius/SAC-D observatory. The mission's primary instrument, Aquarius, will study interactions between ocean circulation, the water cycle and climate by measuring ocean surface salinity. On average, seawater in the world's oceans has a salinity of about 3.5% (35 g/L). In addition to Aquarius, the observatory carries seven other instruments that will collect environmental data for a wide range of applications, including studies of natural hazards, air quality, land processes and epidemiology. Although the vast majority of seawater has a salinity of between 3.1% and 3.8%, seawater is not uniformly saline throughout the world. Where mixing occurs with fresh water runoff from river mouths or near melting glaciers, seawater can be substantially less saline. The most saline open sea is the Red Sea, where high rates of evaporation, low precipitation and river inflow, and confined circulation result in unusually salty water. The salinity in isolated bodies of water (for example, the Dead Sea) can be considerably greater still.

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Ocean salinity has been stable for billions of years.

The mission will make NASA's first space observations of the concentration of dissolved salt at the ocean surface. Aquarius' observations will reveal how salinity variations influence ocean circulation, trace the path of freshwater around our planet, and help drive Earth's climate. The ocean surface constantly exchanges water and heat with Earth's atmosphere.

Approximately 80 percent of the global water cycle that moves freshwater from the ocean to the atmosphere to the land and back to the ocean happens over the ocean.

Salinity plays a key role in these exchanges. By tracking changes in ocean surface salinity, Aquarius will monitor variations in the water cycle caused by evaporation and precipitation over the ocean, river runoff, and the freezing and melting of sea ice.

Salinity also makes seawater denser, causing it to sink, where it becomes part of deep, interconnected ocean currents. This deep ocean "conveyor belt" moves water masses and heat from the tropics to the polar regions, helping to regulate Earth's climate.

"Salinity is the glue that bonds two major components of Earth's complex climate system: ocean circulation and the global water cycle," said Aquarius Principal Investigator Gary Lagerloef of Earth & Space Research in Seattle. "Aquarius will map global variations in salinity in unprecedented detail, leading to new discoveries that will improve our ability to predict future climate."

Aquarius will measure salinity by sensing microwave emissions from the water's surface with a radiometer instrument. These emissions can be used to indicate the saltiness of the surface water, after accounting for other environmental factors. Salinity levels in the open ocean vary by only about five parts per thousand, and small changes are important. Aquarius uses advanced technologies to detect changes in salinity as small as about two parts per 10,000, equivalent to a pinch (about one-eighth of a teaspoon) of salt in a gallon of water.

Aquarius will map the entire open ocean every seven days for at least three years from 408 miles (657 kilometers) above Earth. Its measurements will produce monthly estimates of ocean surface salinity with a spatial resolution of 93 miles (150 kilometers). The data will reveal how salinity changes over time and from one part of the ocean to another. 

For further information: http://www.jpl.nasa.gov/news/news.cfm?release=2011-146&rn=news.xml&rst=3000

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