The Gulf Stream is weakening, and Europe could expect a prolonged cold spell as the world warms – but not the day after tomorrow.
LONDON, 25 March, 2019 – As the Gulf Stream weakens in a rapidly warming world, north-western Europe could paradoxically become cooler. There is, however, a time lag between those two climate change-related events, and US scientists now think they know how long that could be.
It could be as much as 400 years.
They know this because the world has warmed and cooled before, and as the difference between tropics and Arctic narrows, there is a change in the so-called Atlantic conveyor, an important part of the climate machine.
This vast Atlantic current carries a steady flow of warm water to the far north, making north-western Europe up to 5°C warmer than its latitude would otherwise dictate. Then, as it meets colder, denser Arctic waters, it dives, to carry its burden of surface carbon to the depths, and then flows southwards again.
This phenomenon, known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, is in effect Europe’s bespoke heating system: Britain’s chief scientific adviser once calculated that it delivers to the UK alone the warmth of 27,000 power stations.
“There are some precursors in the ocean, so we should be watching the ocean”
But evidence from climate history shows that this heating has been turned off a number of times. Europe was plunged into a cold snap 13,000 years ago during a period known as the Younger Dryas and then warmed up about 11,000 years ago.
New and sophisticated studies of fossil carbon show that anybody taking notes at the time might have observed the warning signs. About 400 years before the abrupt shift to a frosty spell, the Atlantic current weakened. And it started to strengthen again about four centuries before the world warmed.
The study, published in the journal Nature Communications, confirms what climate scientists have always known: any sudden catastrophic return of the Ice Ages – dramatised in Hollywood’s notorious 2004 climate change movie The Day After Tomorrow – won’t happen at action movie pace. But it will happen over decades, and now seemingly with several centuries of advance notice.
“Our reconstructions indicate that there are clear climate precursors provided by the ocean state – like warning signs, so to speak,” said Francesco Muschitiello, then of the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory at Columbia University, US, and now at the University of Cambridge in the UK, who led the research.
Climate scientists have clear dates for the timing of the Younger Dryas event: ice cores from the Arctic show both that Greenland’s temperature fell by 6°C or more at the beginning of the cycle, and that it rose by at least 8°C at its end.
To time the changes in the ocean current, they used carbon-dating techniques to identify a pattern of change in the marine sediments in the Norwegian Sea.
Since marine sediments settle very slowly, over very long periods of time, they needed a more precise “clock” to help calibrate their calculations: they found this in the fossilised ancient plants in a Scandinavian lake.
The isotope carbon-14 is pulled directly from the atmosphere each season by growing foliage. It decays at a predictable rate, and the amount of surviving C14 delivered a reliable clock. The identification of two volcanic ash layers from eruptions in Iceland, in both lake and seabed, provided yet more confidence in the timings. From these factors, the researchers were able to identify a slowdown in the transport of carbon from surface to the deep – and thus a slowdown in the current.
The research confirms a link between ocean circulation patterns and northern hemisphere climate shifts: it provides evidence of what could be a considerable interval between the two.
Researchers have repeatedly warned that the Atlantic current seemed to be slowing, in response to global warming driven by profligate fossil fuel use by humankind, and that the consequences of continued slowdown could be very uncomfortable for hundreds of millions.
If the evidence from the Younger Dryas provides a sure parallel to today’s conditions, then Europeans might have time to prepare.
“It is clear that there are some precursors in the ocean, so we should be watching the ocean,” said Dr Muschitiello. “The mere fact that AMOC has been slowing down, that should be a concern based on what we have found.” – Climate News Network