Ocean Climate Is Changing. Here Is How We Know.

Temperatures in the northeast Pacific have increased by over 1.25 °C since observations began in 1956. That record is proving invaluable to ocean comprehension. 

The Ocean Is Warming

Like a dry sponge under a slow faucet of climate change, the ocean is absorbing the Earth’s excess heat and we have the records to prove it. Decades of monitoring off the coast of British Columbia provide evidence of warming that is as true at the surface (+2 °C per century) as it is over one kilometre beneath the sea surface (+0.1 °C per century) (Cummings and Ross, In Press). This warming is changing the habitat in ways that are still very active areas of research, but we know much about this one place thanks to the tireless dedication of those researchers who made this work possible. 

One Place We Know “Normal”

Station Papa looks like most anywhere else in the ocean when you’re on a ship. But this place, at 50 °N 145 °W and 1,500 kilometres offshore, isn’t just anywhere … it’s one of just a handful of places where we know what a “normal” actually looks like. We know this because over 60 years of data has been collected from this unassuming place, making it the longest ocean time series anywhere. Along the way, it’s been precisely because this is not a special place that we have learned about processes that would have been too challenging to study elsewhere.     

Why Station Papa?

For a country to have a reliable weather forecast, it needs to know what is happening upwind. Before satellites, weather ships were the primary way that mid-ocean observations were made. Their data, born of the war effort in the 1940s, assisted transoceanic flight until the advent of satellites. But satellites cannot do what the sailors did between atmospheric observations … measure the ocean below. A research vessel filled with scientists now visits Station Papa three times each year—adding to this extensive record and making new discoveries.

How Are Measurements Made?

During the weather ship days it was over a month on station, and today’s three-week cruises can be rather thrilling as the bunks shake and you may never get to Station Papa as weather forces you back to shore for fear of running out of food or fuel. When the weather calms enough to deploy, or “cast” instruments, the oceanographic workhorse know as the CTD (measuring conductivity/salinity, temperature, and depth) gathers the fundamental data and water samples are analyzed for myriad other variables. Thousands of casts have been made at Station Papa over the years.  

Beyond Temperature

Research cruises to Station Papa have served as a platform for other programs to join. Countless instruments have been tested, perfected, and adopted as standard over the years. All this data have led to over 2,000 scientific publications. Because of these cruises we know that the Pacific does not function like the Atlantic, we can manipulate the ocean food web with a tanker of iron, and that the ocean habitat in the Pacific is getting fresher, losing nutrients, and losing oxygen at an alarming rate.  

A Data Feast

Like bringing a dish to a potluck, it doesn’t take much new data to get your fill from Station Papa. It is one of the most instrumented locations in the entire global ocean with floats, gliders, and numerous moorings all sending their data back in near realtime. For that data that cannot be measured electronically the tri-annual research cruises continue to be a vital mainstay to our understanding. With all the knowledge that has been gained, it is now easier than ever for scientists to probe what is not normal and to push the boundaries of our understanding.  

This data application is currently under development with continued improvements planned in 2020. Please check back to see new features.