Warm current that has historically caused dramatic changes in climate is experiencing an unprecedented slowdown and may be less stable than thought – with potentially severe consequences
The warm Atlantic current linked to severe and abrupt changes in the climate in the past is now at its weakest in at least 1,600 years, new research shows. The findings, based on multiple lines of scientific evidence, throw into question previous predictions that a catastrophic collapse of the Gulf Stream would take centuries to occur.
Such a collapse would see western Europe suffer far more extreme winters, sea levels rise fast on the eastern seaboard of the US and would disrupt vital tropical rains. The new research shows the current is now 15% weaker than around 400AD, an exceptionally large deviation, and that human-caused global warming is responsible for at least a significant part of the weakening.
The current, known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (Amoc), carries warm water northwards towards the north pole. There it cools, becomes denser and sinks, and then flows back southwards. But global warming hampers the cooling of the water, while melting ice in the Arctic, particularly from Greenland, floods the area with less dense freshwater, weakening the Amoc current.
Scientists know that Amoc has slowed since 2004, when instruments were deployed at sea to measure it. But now two new studies have provided comprehensive ocean-based evidence that the weakening is unprecedented in at least 1,600 years, which is as far back as the new research stretches.
“Amoc is a really important part of the Earth’s climate system and it has played an important part in abrupt climate change in the past,” said Dr David Thornalley, from University College London who led one of the new studies. He said current climate models do not replicate the observed slowdown, suggesting that Amoc is less stable that thought.
During the last ice age, some big changes in Amoc led to winter temperatures changing by 5-10C in as short a time as one to three years, with major consequences for the weather over the land masses bordering the Atlantic. “The [current] climate models don’t predict [an Amoc shutdown] is going to happen in the future – the problem is how certain are we it is not going to happen? It is one of these tipping points that is relatively low probability, but high impact.”
The study by Thornalley and colleagues, published in Nature, used cores of sediments from a key site off Cape Hatteras in North Carolina to examine Amoc over the last 1600 years. Larger grains of sediment reflect faster Amoc currents and vice versa.