Ocean and Climate Change Institute

  • WHOI Geologist and OCCI Fellow Sarah Das
    WHOI Geologist and OCCI Fellow Sarah Das in Greenland looking for the perfection location for an experiment to trace how lake water drains through the ice sheet, over the bedrock below, and out to the ocean. (Photo by Chris Linder, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution)

Understanding the Role of the Ocean in Global Climate

Unlike the weather we experience every day, Earth’s climate changes relatively slowly, varying from year to year and over centuries and millennia.   Among the slow responders to climate forcing, the ocean plays a major role in the longer-term changes in the climate system and changing patterns of ocean circulation set up much of the regional variability in climate observed on land.  It plays an important role as a sink for the heat building up in earth’s systems, it acts as an important sink for the increasing CO2 resulting from fossil fuel burning and is responding to warming and glacier melting with a slow, inexorable rise in sea level.

The inherent complexity of Earth’s changing climate—occurring over short and long time frames and affecting various regions of the globe differently—presents a formidable challenge to any scientific endeavor, be it an observational program, a research analysis, or a modeling effort.  The large regional variability in earth’s climate requires us to study the ocean on a global scale and using multiple approaches.  The long-term effects of the ocean on climate are also difficult to examine because historical records of climate are short (about 150 years) and records of ocean circulation are even shorter (about 50 years).  While strong trends, such as those associated with global warming, can be seen in the modern record, the record is too short to decipher the important changes in climate and their causes that occur over multiple decades or longer.

In order to better understand the role of the oceans in climate, the Ocean and Climate Change Institute (OCCI) identifies the climatic effects of changing ocean circulation; develops ocean-monitoring networks to better understand and forecast climate changes; examines past records of climate from the geological record to expand understanding of ocean behavior; studies ocean-ice dynamics that may trigger climate shifts and accelerate sea level rise; and evaluates the ocean’s response to the buildup of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere and in the oceans. Working in three main thematic areas—the ocean in the climate system, the hydrological cycle, and carbon dioxide and the climate—we are dedicated to understanding the ocean’s role in climate by devoting resources to interdiscplinary research teams, educating the next generation of ocean and climate researchers, and communicating the importance of ocean research to a variety of climate stakeholders including the government, corporations and the public.