Sunday, March 03, 2024|
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Superstorms, abrupt climate shifts and New York City frozen in ice. That’s how the blockbuster Hollywood movie “The Day After Tomorrow” depicted an abrupt shutdown of the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation and the catastrophic consequences.
While Hollywood’s vision was over the top, the 2004 movie raised a serious question: If global warming shuts down the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which is crucial for carrying heat from the tropics to the northern latitudes, how abrupt and severe would the climate changes be?
Twenty years after the movie’s release, we know a lot more about the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation. Instruments deployed in the ocean starting in 2004 show that the Atlantic Ocean circulation has observably slowed over the past two decades, possibly to its weakest state in almost a millennium. Studies also suggest that the circulation has reached a dangerous tipping point in the past that sent it into a precipitous, unstoppable decline, and that it could hit that tipping point again as the planet warms and glaciers and ice sheets melt.
In a new study using the latest generation of Earth’s climate models, we simulated the flow of fresh water until the ocean circulation reached that tipping point.
The results showed that the circulation could fully shut down within a century of hitting the tipping point, and that it’s headed in that direction. If that happened, average temperatures would drop by several degrees in North America, parts of Asia and Europe, and people would see severe and cascading consequences around the world.
THE OCEAN’S CONVEYOR BELT
Ocean currents are driven by winds, tides and water density differences.
In the Atlantic Ocean circulation, the relatively warm and salty surface water near the equator flows toward Greenland. During its journey it crosses the Caribbean Sea, loops up into the Gulf of Mexico, and then flows along the U.S. East Coast before crossing the Atlantic.
This current, also known as the Gulf Stream, brings heat to Europe. As it flows northward and cools, the water mass becomes heavier. By the time it reaches Greenland, it starts to sink and flow southward. The sinking of water near Greenland pulls water from elsewhere in the Atlantic Ocean and the cycle repeats, like a conveyor belt.
Too much fresh water from melting glaciers and the Greenland ice sheet can dilute the saltiness of the water, preventing it from sinking, and weaken this ocean conveyor belt. A weaker conveyor belt transports less heat northward and also enables less heavy water to reach Greenland, which further weakens the conveyor belt’s strength.
WHAT HAPPENS TO THE CLIMATE AT THE TIPPING POINT?
We performed an experiment with a detailed climate model to find the tipping point for an abrupt shutdown by slowly increasing the input of fresh water.
We found that once it reaches the tipping point, the conveyor belt shuts down within 100 years. The heat transport toward the north is strongly reduced, leading to abrupt climate shifts.
The result: Dangerous cold in the North
Regions that are influenced by the Gulf Stream receive substantially less heat when the circulation stops.
The big question – when will the Atlantic circulation reach a tipping point – remains unanswered. Observations don’t go back far enough to provide a clear result. However, the climate impacts from our study underline the severity of such an abrupt conveyor belt collapse. The temperature, sea level and precipitation changes will severely affect society, and the climate shifts are unstoppable on human time scales.
It might seem counterintuitive to worry about extreme cold as the planet warms, but if the main Atlantic Ocean circulation shuts down from too much meltwater pouring in, that’s the risk ahead.
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