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Climate change may not disrupt the Gulf Stream

Studies contradict predictions that melting ice would weaken the current, which keeps northern Europe warm, ushering in a freeze.

July 08, 2007|Karl Ritter | Associated Press

TORSHAVN, FAROE ISLANDS — From the deck of a research ship moored in these gusty north Atlantic islands, workers are unloading three bright orange buoys whose sonar devices will help Bogi Hansen fill more gaps in an intriguing twist on climate-change forecasts.

For the past year, the Faroese scientist's sonar has been pinging the Gulf Stream, the warm ocean current that has kept this subpolar archipelago halfway between Iceland and Norway unfrozen for centuries. His findings are of great interest because they appear to contradict one of the most catastrophic predictions linked to global warming, that Arctic melting will strangle the Gulf Stream, thrusting Europe into a new Ice Age.

Hansen's research and recent climate models raise a tantalizing possibility: Can the slight weakening of the Gulf Stream expected over the next century actually help to offset the effects of global warming in northern Europe?

Some scientists think so.

"We will benefit a little bit from this," said Helge Drange of the Nansen Environmental and Remote Sensing Center in Bergen, Norway, a researcher who builds climate models. Instead of warming 5 to 7 degrees Fahrenheit, he said, northwestern Europe may warm 4 to 5 degrees.

The U.N.-sponsored Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change said this year that the global ocean circulation powering the Gulf Stream was likely to slow, but was "very unlikely" to change abruptly.

No models project a complete shutdown of the Gulf Stream, which feeds warm water up the east coast of North America and across the Atlantic Ocean to Europe.

"It's one of the good-news things in the climate story," said Andrew Weaver, a Canadian researcher and lead author of a section dealing with ocean currents in the IPCC report. "To be perfectly honest, it's difficult to fathom a mechanism that could cause its collapse."

Hansen said his latest measurements on the underwater Greenland-Scotland ridge showed no weakening in the North Atlantic Drift, the crucial northward branch of the Gulf Stream.

It is high salinity that causes Arctic water to sink and generate the energy for the Gulf Stream. Scientists expect the flow to taper off in coming decades by up to 50% as Greenland's melting ice sheet releases freshwater into the north Atlantic, slowing the main pump that drives what is known as the ocean conveyor belt -- the global circulation of currents

Hansen said current projections showed that this process "would mitigate the global warming" rather than cause an abrupt and cataclysmic cooling.

Still, there are plenty of uncertainties.

While northwestern Europe, from Britain to Scandinavia, can expect continued gradual warming, the net effect of climate change and a slower Gulf Stream is harder to predict for north Atlantic islands such as Iceland or the Faroes, a semiautonomous Danish territory with 50,000 inhabitants.

Here, right in the middle of the North Atlantic Drift, is where the warming effect is most pronounced. The average winter temperature in Torshavn is 37 F -- about 22 degrees higher than in Anchorage, which is on the same latitude.

"The Faroes would be very much colder but also large areas of this region and the whole Arctic would be very much affected if this flow of heat would weaken considerably," Hansen said.

Even a slight cooling could mean the difference between green and white winters for places such as the Faroes where average winter temperatures are just above freezing.

A slowdown in the circulation could also affect marine life, because it transports oxygen and other substances to the deep ocean.

Researchers also are reexamining the commonly held view that melting Arctic sea ice has caused a drop in north Atlantic salinity. The salt level has started recovering since 2000 and scientists say the fluctuations reflect a natural cycle.

"We now realize that the observed decline in ocean salinity that occurred from 1965-2000 had more to do with the wind patterns and storm tracks than with global warming," said Ruth Curry, an oceanographer at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution in Massachusetts.

Nevertheless, climate change is expected to play a bigger role in the next cycle of freshening expected around 2020, because the Greenland ice cap is melting faster, Curry said.

"Will it slow the ocean conveyor? It's possible," said Curry, who is not connected to Hansen's research. "Will it cause the same sort of complete alteration that we know happened 12,000 years ago? No, that's very unlikely."

Even the long-established tenet that Europe owes its mild winters to the Gulf Stream is under scrutiny, most vocally by Richard Seager, a scientist at the Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory of Columbia University in Palisades, N.Y.

He calls the Gulf Stream effect a myth, and contends that the prevailing wind patterns have a much bigger role in explaining why Europe is several degrees warmer in winter than equivalent latitudes in North America.

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