Forum for Science, Industry and Business

Sponsored by:     3M 
Search our Site:

 

Atlantic Ocean overturning found to slow down already today

24.03.2015

The Atlantic overturning is one of Earth’s most important heat transport systems, pumping warm water northwards and cold water southwards. Also known as the Gulf Stream system, it is responsible for the mild climate in northwestern Europe. 

Scientists now found evidence for a slowdown of the overturning – multiple lines of observation suggest that in recent decades, the current system has been weaker than ever before in the last century, or even in the last millennium. The gradual but accelerating melting of the Greenland ice-sheet, caused by man-made global warming, is a possible major contributor to the slowdown.


Atlantic Conveyor - Graph of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation by Stefan Rahmstorf from PIK

Stefan Rahmstorf/PIK


Figure 1 of the article by Rahmstorf et al (2015), showing linear trends of surface temperature for 1901–2013, based on the temperature data of NASA GISS (white indicates insufficient data)

Rahmstorf et al (2015)

Further weakening could impact marine ecosystems and sea level as well as weather systems in the US and Europe.

“It is conspicuous that one specific area in the North Atlantic has been cooling in the past hundred years while the rest of the world heats up,” says Stefan Rahmstorf of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, lead author of the study to be published in Nature Climate Change. Previous research had already indicated that a slowdown of the so-called Atlantic meridional overturning circulation might be to blame for this. “Now we have detected strong evidence that the global conveyor has indeed been weakening in the past hundred years, particularly since 1970,” says Rahmstorf.

Because long-term direct ocean current measurements are lacking, the scientists mainly used sea-surface and atmospheric temperature data to derive information about the ocean currents, exploiting the fact that ocean currents are the leading cause of temperature variations in the subpolar north Atlantic. From so-called proxy data – gathered from ice-cores, tree-rings, coral, and ocean and lake sediments – temperatures can be reconstructed for more than a millennium back in time. The recent changes found by the team are unprecedented since the year 900 AD, strongly suggesting they are caused by man-made global warming.

**“The melting Greenland ice sheet is likely disturbing the circulation”**

The Atlantic overturning is driven by differences in the density of the ocean water. From the south, the warm and hence lighter water flows northwards, where the cold and thus heavier water sinks to deeper ocean layers and flows southwards. “Now freshwater coming off the melting Greenland ice sheet is likely disturbing the circulation,” says Jason Box of the Geological Survey of Denmark and Greenland. The freshwater is diluting the ocean water. Less saline water is less dense and has therefore less tendency to sink into the deep. “So the human-caused mass loss of the Greenland ice sheet appears to be slowing down the Atlantic overturning – and this effect might increase if temperatures are allowed to rise further,” explains Box.

The observed cooling in the North Atlantic, just south of Greenland, is stronger than what most computer simulations of the climate have predicted so far. “Common climate models are underestimating the change we’re facing, either because the Atlantic overturning is too stable in the models or because they don’t properly account for Greenland ice sheet melt, or both,” says Michael Mann of Pennsylvania State University in the US. “That is another example where observations suggest that climate model predictions are in some respects still overly conservative when it comes to the pace at which certain aspects of climate change are proceeding.”

**No new ice-age – but major negative effects are possible**

The cooling above the Northern Atlantic would only slightly reduce the continued warming of the continents. The scientists certainly do not expect a new ice age, thus the imagery of the ten-year-old Hollywood blockbuster ‘The Day After Tomorrow’ is far from reality. However, it is well established that a large, even gradual change in Atlantic ocean circulation could have major negative effects.

“If the slowdown of the Atlantic overturning continues, the impacts might be substantial,” says Rahmstorf. “Disturbing the circulation will likely have a negative effect on the ocean ecosystem, and thereby fisheries and the associated livelihoods of many people in coastal areas. A slowdown also adds to the regional sea-level rise affecting cities like New York and Boston. Finally, temperature changes in that region can also influence weather systems on both sides of the Atlantic, in North America as well as Europe.”

If the circulation weakens too much it can even break down completely – the Atlantic overturning has for long been considered a possible tipping element in the Earth System. This would mean a relatively rapid and hard-to-reverse change. The latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimates there to be an up to one-in-ten chance that this could happen as early as within this century. However, expert surveys indicate that many researchers assess the risk to be higher. The study now published by the international team of researchers around Rahmstorf provides information on which to base a new and better risk assessment.

Article: Rahmstorf, S., Box, J., Feulner, G., Mann, M., Robinson, A., Rutherford, S., Schaffernicht, E. (2015): Evidence for an exceptional 20th-Century slowdown in Atlantic Ocean overturning. Nature Climate Change (online) [DOI:10.1038/nclimate2554]

Weblink to the article once it is published: http://dx.doi.org/10.1038/nclimate2554

Further information:

- Weblink to NASA animation “The Great Ocean Conveyor Belt” (downloadable video that shows the current system that now is found to slow down in the North Atlantic): http://pmm.nasa.gov/education/videos/thermohaline-circulation-great-ocean-convey...

- Weblink to a study on possible impacts of a shutdown of the thermohaline circulation: http://link.springer.com/article/10.1007%2Fs10584-009-9561-y

- Weblink to the expert assessment of an AMOC tipping: http://www.pnas.org/content/early/2009/03/13/0809117106.abstract

Media contact:

PIK press office
Phone: +49 331 288 25 07
E-Mail: press@pik-potsdam.de
Twitter: @PIK_Climate

Jonas Viering | Potsdam-Institut für Klimafolgenforschung

More articles from Earth Sciences:

nachricht Supercomputing helps researchers understand Earth's interior
23.05.2017 | University of Illinois College of Liberal Arts & Sciences

nachricht How is climate change affecting fauna in the Arctic?
22.05.2017 | Alfred-Wegener-Institut, Helmholtz-Zentrum für Polar- und Meeresforschung

All articles from Earth Sciences >>>

The most recent press releases about innovation >>>

Die letzten 5 Focus-News des innovations-reports im Überblick:

Im Focus: Turmoil in sluggish electrons’ existence

An international team of physicists has monitored the scattering behaviour of electrons in a non-conducting material in real-time. Their insights could be beneficial for radiotherapy.

We can refer to electrons in non-conducting materials as ‘sluggish’. Typically, they remain fixed in a location, deep inside an atomic composite. It is hence...

Im Focus: Wafer-thin Magnetic Materials Developed for Future Quantum Technologies

Two-dimensional magnetic structures are regarded as a promising material for new types of data storage, since the magnetic properties of individual molecular building blocks can be investigated and modified. For the first time, researchers have now produced a wafer-thin ferrimagnet, in which molecules with different magnetic centers arrange themselves on a gold surface to form a checkerboard pattern. Scientists at the Swiss Nanoscience Institute at the University of Basel and the Paul Scherrer Institute published their findings in the journal Nature Communications.

Ferrimagnets are composed of two centers which are magnetized at different strengths and point in opposing directions. Two-dimensional, quasi-flat ferrimagnets...

Im Focus: World's thinnest hologram paves path to new 3-D world

Nano-hologram paves way for integration of 3-D holography into everyday electronics

An Australian-Chinese research team has created the world's thinnest hologram, paving the way towards the integration of 3D holography into everyday...

Im Focus: Using graphene to create quantum bits

In the race to produce a quantum computer, a number of projects are seeking a way to create quantum bits -- or qubits -- that are stable, meaning they are not much affected by changes in their environment. This normally needs highly nonlinear non-dissipative elements capable of functioning at very low temperatures.

In pursuit of this goal, researchers at EPFL's Laboratory of Photonics and Quantum Measurements LPQM (STI/SB), have investigated a nonlinear graphene-based...

Im Focus: Bacteria harness the lotus effect to protect themselves

Biofilms: Researchers find the causes of water-repelling properties

Dental plaque and the viscous brown slime in drainpipes are two familiar examples of bacterial biofilms. Removing such bacterial depositions from surfaces is...

All Focus news of the innovation-report >>>

Anzeige

Anzeige

Event News

AWK Aachen Machine Tool Colloquium 2017: Internet of Production for Agile Enterprises

23.05.2017 | Event News

Dortmund MST Conference presents Individualized Healthcare Solutions with micro and nanotechnology

22.05.2017 | Event News

Innovation 4.0: Shaping a humane fourth industrial revolution

17.05.2017 | Event News

 
Latest News

Scientists propose synestia, a new type of planetary object

23.05.2017 | Physics and Astronomy

Zap! Graphene is bad news for bacteria

23.05.2017 | Life Sciences

Medical gamma-ray camera is now palm-sized

23.05.2017 | Medical Engineering

VideoLinks
B2B-VideoLinks
More VideoLinks >>>