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A summary of the path of the thermohaline circulation. Blue paths represent deep-water currents, while red paths represent surface currents

Shutdown or slowdown of the thermohaline circulation is a postulated effect of global warming.

There is some speculation that global warming could, via a shutdown or slowdown of the thermohaline circulation, trigger localized cooling in the North Atlantic and lead to cooling, or lesser warming, in that region. This would affect in particular areas like Iceland, Ireland, the Nordic countries, and Britain that are warmed by the North Atlantic drift. The chances of this occurring are unclear; there is some evidence for the stability of the Gulf Stream but a possible weakening of the North Atlantic drift; and there is evidence of warming in northern Europe and nearby seas, rather than the reverse. The future is undecided, as studies of the Florida Current suggest that the Gulf Stream weakens with cooling and strengthens with warming, being weakest (by ~10%) during the Little Ice Age and strongest during 1,000–1,100 years BP (Before Present), the Medieval Warm Period.[1]


Thermohaline circulation and fresh water

Heat is transported from the equator polewards mostly by the atmosphere but also by ocean currents, with warm water near the surface and cold water at deeper levels. The best known segment of this circulation is the Gulf Stream, a wind-driven gyre, which transports warm water from the Caribbean northwards. A northwards branch of the Gulf Stream, the North Atlantic Drift, is part of the thermohaline circulation (THC), transporting warmth further north to the North Atlantic, where its effect in warming the atmosphere contributes to warming Europe. Other factors are also important, such as atmospheric waves that bring subtropical air further north, which have been suggested to influence the Climate of the British Isles more than the Gulf Stream.[2][3] The evaporation of ocean water in the North Atlantic increases the salinity of the water as well as cooling it, both actions increasing the density of water at the surface. The formation of sea ice further increases the salinity. This dense water then sinks and the circulation stream continues in a southerly direction. Global warming could lead to an increase in freshwater in the northern oceans, by melting glaciers in Greenland and by increasing precipitation, especially through Siberian rivers.[4] It is by no means clear that sufficient freshwater could be provided to interrupt thermohaline circulation — climate models indicate not, but research continues.

The red end of the spectrum indicates slowing in this presentation of the trend of velocities derived from NASA Pathfinder altimeter data from May 1992 to June 2002. Source: NASA.

Some even fear that global warming may be able to trigger the type of abrupt massive temperature shifts which occurred during the last glacial period: a series of Dansgaard-Oeschger events — rapid climate fluctuations — may be attributed to freshwater forcing at high latitude interrupting the THC. The Younger Dryas event may have been of this sort, too. (See the discussion of chaos theory for related ideas.) However, these events are believed to have been triggered by massive freshwater discharges from the Laurentide ice sheet, rather than from the melting of polar sea-ice and precipitation changes associated with the increased open water in global warming. Meltwater events aside, the climate deterioration into the last ice age appears to have taken about 5,000 years. Also, in coupled Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models the THC tends to weaken somewhat rather than stop, and the warming effects outweigh the cooling, even locally: the IPCC Third Assessment Report notes that "even in models where the THC weakens, there is still a warming over Europe".[5] Model runs in which the THC is forced to shut down do show cooling — locally up to 8 °C (14 °F)[6]— although the largest anomalies occur over the North Atlantic, not over land. However, climate models are not sufficiently sophisticated at present to include climatic factors which give these predictions veracity; e.g., the recent return of deep convection to the subpolar gyre in both the Labrador and Irminger seas and the growing ice mass of Greenland.

Measurements in 2004, 2005, 2008 and 2010

In April 2004, the hypothesis that the Gulf Stream is switching off received a boost when a retrospective analysis of U.S. satellite data seemed to show a slowing of the North Atlantic Gyre, the northern swirl of the Gulf Stream.[7]

In May 2005, Peter Wadhams reported to The Times about the results of investigations in a submarine under the Arctic ice sheet measuring the giant chimneys of cold dense water, in which the cold dense water normally sinks down to the sea bed and is replaced by warm water, forming one of the engines of the North Atlantic Drift. He and his team found the chimneys to have virtually disappeared. Normally there are seven to twelve giant columns, but Wadhams found only two giant columns, both extremely weak.[8][9]

In 2008, Vage et al. reported "the return of deep convection to the subpolar gyre in both the Labrador and Irminger seas in the winter of 2007–2008," employing "profiling float data from the Argo program to document deep mixing," and "a variety of in situ, satellite and reanalysis data" to set the context for the phenomenon. This might have a lot to do with the observations of variations in cold water chimney behavior.[10]

In January 2010, the Gulf Stream briefly connected with the West Greenland Current after fluctuating for a few weeks due to an extreme negative phase of the Arctic oscillation, temporarily diverting it west of Greenland.[11][12]

Bryden measurements reported late 2005

The news service[13] reported on 30 November 2005 that the National Oceanography Centre in the UK found a 30% reduction in the warm currents that carry water north from the Gulf Stream from the last such measurement in 1992. The authors note that currently the observed changes are "uncomfortably close" to the uncertainties in the measurements. However, the North Atlantic is currently warmer than in the earlier measurements.[14] This suggests that either the circulation is not weakening, or that, even if it is weakening, the weakening is not having the hypothesised cooling effect, or that other factors are able to overwhelm any cooling.[15]

The New Scientist article was based on an article in Nature.[16] In News and Views in the same issue, Detlef Quadfasel reinforces the point that the uncertainty of the estimates of Bryden et al. is high, but says other factors and observations do support their results. Quadfasel continues by pointing out the significance of the possible implications, with palaeoclimate records showing drops of air temperature up to 10°C within decades, linked to abrupt switches of ocean circulation when a certain threshold is reached. He concludes that further observations and modelling are crucial for providing early warning of a possible devastating breakdown of the circulation.[17]

On 19 January 2006, a News Feature Climate change: A sea change by Quirin Schiermeier appeared in Nature, detailing reactions to the Bryden results.[18] Points made by Schiermeier include the following:

  • The results are a surprise to scientists in the field.
  • Modelling suggests that increase of fresh water flows large enough to shut down the thermohaline circulation would be an order of magnitude greater than currently estimated to be occurring, and such increases are unlikely to become critical within the next hundred years; this is hard to reconcile with the Bryden measurements.
  • The Bryden results could be caused by natural variation, or "noise", that is, coincidence.
  • If the results are correct, perhaps thermohaline circulation reductions will not have the drastic effects that have been predicted on European cooling.
  • While previous shutdowns (e.g. the Younger Dryas) have caused cooling, the current overall climate is different; in particular sea-ice formation is less because of overall global warming.
  • However, a thermohaline circulation shutdown could have other major consequences apart from cooling of Europe, such as an increase in major floods and storms, a collapse of plankton stocks, warming or rainfall changes in the tropics or Alaska and Antarctica (including those from intensified El Niño effect), more frequent and intense El Niño events, or an oceanic anoxic event (oxygen (O2) below surface levels of the stagnant oceans becomes completely depleted - a probable cause of past mass extinction events).

Further measurements support the interpretation of natural variation.[19]

See also


  1. ^ Lund DC, Lynch-Stieglitz J, Curry WB (November 2006). "Gulf Stream density structure and transport during the past millennium". Nature 444 (7119): 601–4. doi:10.1038/nature05277. PMID 17136090.  
  2. ^ Seager R (July/August 2006). "The Source of Europe's Mild Climate". American Scientist.  
  3. ^ Rhines, P.B. and Häkkinen, S. Is the Oceanic Heat Transport in the North Atlantic Irrelevant to the Climate in Europe? OSAF Newsletter, September 2003
  4. ^ Turrell, B. The Big Chill Transcript of discussion on BBC 2, 13 November 2003
  5. ^ Thermohaline circulation changes. From IPCC Working Group 1, chapter 9.
  6. ^ Vellinga, M. and Wood, R.A. Global climatic impacts of a collapse of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation. Climatic Change 54: 251 267, 2002.
  7. ^ Satellites record weakening North Atlantic Current. NASA, 15 April 2004.
  8. ^ Jonathan Leake, Britain faces big chill as ocean current slows, The Sunday Times, 8 May 2005.
  9. ^ Gulf Stream slowdown?, 26 May 2005.
  10. ^ Våge, Kjetil (2009). "Surprising return of deep convection to the subpolar North Atlantic Ocean in winter 2007–2008". Nature Geoscience 2: 67–72. doi:10.1038/ngeo382.  
  11. ^ FishOutofWater, Diaries (January 6, 2010). "Freak Current Takes Gulf Stream to Greenland". Daily Kos. Retrieved 11 January 2010.  
  12. ^ FishOutofWater, Diaries (December 30, 2009). "Warm Atlantic Water Rapidly Replacing Arctic Sea Ice". Daily Kos. Retrieved 11 January 2010.  
  13. ^ F. Pearce. Failing ocean current raises fears of mini ice age. NewScientist, 30 November 2005
  14. ^ Hátún H, Sandø AB, Drange H, Hansen B, Valdimarsson H (September 2005). "Influence of the Atlantic subpolar gyre on the thermohaline circulation". Science 309 (5742): 1841–4. doi:10.1126/science.1114777. PMID 16166513. [Unravel extensive changes in the North Atlantic Ocean—Increased temperature and salinity in the Nordic Seas Lay summary] – Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research.  
  15. ^ Gavin Schmidt and Michael Mann. Decrease in Atlantic circulation?, 30 Nov 2005.
  16. ^ Bryden HL, Longworth HR, Cunningham SA (December 2005). "Slowing of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation at 25° N". Nature 438 (7068): 655–7. doi:10.1038/nature04385. PMID 16319889.  
  17. ^ Quadfasel D (December 2005). "Oceanography: The Atlantic heat conveyor slows". Nature 438 (7068): 565–6. doi:10.1038/438565a. PMID 16319866.  
  18. ^ Schiermeier, Quirin (2007). "Climate change: A sea change". Nature 439 (7074): 256–60. doi:10.1038/439256a. PMID 16421539.   (subscription required); see also "Atlantic circulation change summary". 19 Jan 2006.  
  19. ^ Schiermeier, Quirin (2007). "Ocean circulation noisy, not stalling". Nature 448 (7156): 844–5. doi:10.1038/448844b.  

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