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Ocean currents are accelerating due to climate change, UCSD study says

Local researchers say faster ocean currents will have global implications ranging from a change in weather to plant and marine life.

SAN DIEGO — A new study out of UCSD determined climate change is responsible for altering global ocean currents, making them faster and thinner. The study was led by researchers out of Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego.

The research involved running computer model data amid a rising surface temperature alongside other variables. Shang-Ping Xie, a Professor of Climate Science at UCSD's Scripps Institution of Oceanography, says his team is now focused on the global and local implications and effects of this conclusion. “We were very surprised to see there is a consistent global-wide surface ocean current acceleration as we heat the ocean from the surface,” Xie told CBS 8. "As a scientist, the surprising part of our research is the global nature of this current acceleration. That indicates the results are quite robust and consistent with our physical laws.”

The new data could suggest a harsh future for our oceans, with currents affecting the amount of photosynthesis taking place, nutrients available to marine life, and potentially even more difficult migratory patterns for wildlife. “The ocean currents speed up and therefore the horizontal and vertical distribution of nutrients is going to change accordingly," said Xie. "So that’s going to affect the distribution and activity of photosynthesis and therefore the biological activity overall.”

That includes here in San Diego, where ocean currents play a significant role in keeping coastal temperatures mild, mitigating fire danger, and keeping local fishermen in business. 

“The California coast has benefited from ocean upwelling especially during the summer when the cold water upwells on our coast," Xie added. "That keeps our coastal temperatures moderate and pleasant. So climate change is probably going to change the ocean circulation along our coast. In what way – that’s something we’d have to study more carefully.”

The UCSD based team is continuing to research what this means for our future, but scientists emphasize, humans are in control. “We are in charge of the gas pedal. In other words, humanity has the ability to control and reduce the greenhouse gasses we emit into the atmosphere," said Xie. 

Last month the study was published and is now helping to resolve an ongoing debate on the cause of an increase in ocean currents. Scientists have often attributed the acceleration to wind, but this new study found global warming as a primary culprit. 

The team says the next step will be determining the extent of damage that can occur due to the change in speed. The full study can be found in the journal Nature and Science Advances

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