If global warming shuts down the thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic Ocean, the result could be catastrophic climate change. The environmental effects, models indicate, depend upon whether the shutdown is reversible or irreversible.
"If the thermohaline shutdown is irreversible, we would have to work much harder to get it to restart," said Michael Schlesinger, a professor of atmospheric sciences at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign and a co-author of a report presented at the American Geophysical Union meeting in San Francisco. "Not only would we have the very difficult task of removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, we also would have the virtually impossible task of removing fresh water from the North Atlantic Ocean."
The thermohaline circulation is driven by differences in seawater density, caused by temperature and salinity. Like a great conveyor belt, the circulation pattern moves warm surface water from the southern hemisphere toward the North Pole. Between Greenland and Norway, the water cools, sinks into the deep ocean, and begins flowing back to the south.
James E. Kloeppel | EurekAlert!
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