According to new findings, the Atlantic Ocean's circulation underpinning the Gulf Stream, the weather system that carries warm and mild weather to Europe, is at its worst in more than a century. The possible cause is climate breakdown.
Further deterioration of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) could lead to more hurricanes, stronger winters, and a spike in heat waves and droughts across Europe, battering the UK.
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Scientists expect that if global heating persists, the AMOC would eventually degrade and will decrease by around 34% to 45% by the end of this century, which will put it close to a "tipping point" at which the environment could become irrevocably unstable. A depleted Gulf Stream will also, with potentially catastrophic effects, increase water levels on the US Atlantic coast.
Stefan Rahmstorf, who co-authored the report published in Nature Geoscience on Thursday from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Effect Studies, told the Guardian that a weakening AMOC would increase the number and intensity of storms reaching Britain and carry more heatwaves to Europe.
Just out: our new paper affirming the unprecedented slowdown of the Gulf Stream System (aka Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, 𝗔𝗠𝗢𝗖) in Nature Geoscience! @NatureGeosci A thread. 1/11 pic.twitter.com/2GovKz5evk— Stefan Rahmstorf 😷 (@rahmstorf) February 25, 2021
The circulation had already slowed by about 15 percent, he said, and the results were seen. "It is expected to degrade more in 20 to 30 years, and it will eventually impact our atmosphere, so we will see a spike in storms and heatwaves in Europe, and sea levels will rise on the US east coast," he said.
Rahmstorf and fellow scientists from Maynooth University in Ireland and University College London in the UK concluded that, after analyzing sediments, Greenland ice cores, and other proxy evidence that showed historical weather trends during that period, the recent weakening has not been seen over at least the last 1,000 years. Only since 2004 has the AMOC been tested directly.
The AMOC is one of the largest ocean circulation channels in the world, bringing warm seawater from the Gulf of Mexico to the northern Atlantic, where it cools and becomes saltier before it sinks north of Iceland, which absorbs more warm water from the Caribbean in response. Winds that also help to carry mild and damp conditions to Ireland, the UK, and other areas of Western Europe are followed by this circulation.
As a result of global heat spikes, scientists have long expected a deterioration of the AMOC and have raised fears that it might fail entirely. The new study showed that any such point was likely to be decades away but that it would be pushed closer by sustained high greenhouse gas emissions.
Rahmstorf said: "In this century, we are at risk of triggering [a tipping point] and circulation will spin down in the next century. We're highly unlikely to have caused it now, but if we don't stop global warming, we're more likely to cause it."
A deterioration of the AMOC was also recorded by studies in 2018. Still, the paper in Nature Geoscience says that over the last millennia, this was unusual, a strong indicator that human activities are to blame. A weakening of the Gulf Stream could cause freezing winters in Western Europe and unprecedented shifts across the Atlantic, scientists have previously said.
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