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SOURCE: Washington Post
DATE: February 25, 2021
SNIP: A growing body of evidence suggests that a massive change is underway in the sensitive circulation system of the Atlantic Ocean, a group of scientists said Thursday.

The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), a system of currents that includes the Florida Current and the Gulf Stream, is now “in its weakest state in over a millennium,” these experts say. This has implications for everything from the climate of Europe to the rates of sea-level rise along the U.S. East Coast.

Although evidence of the system’s weakening has been published before, the new research cites 11 sources of “proxy” evidence of the circulation’s strength, including clues hidden in seafloor mud as well as patterns of ocean temperatures. The enormous flow has been directly measured only since 2004, too short a period to definitively establish a trend, which makes these indirect measures critical for understanding its behavior.

The new research applies a statistical analysis to show that those measures are in sync and that nine out of 11 show a clear trend.

Prior research had suggested that the AMOC was at its weakest point in a millennium or more, and suggested a roughly 15 percent weakening since about 1950. But when it comes to the latest evidence, “I think it just makes this conclusion considerably stronger,” said Stefan Rahmstorf, an author of the research and an oceanographer with the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany.

The study was published in Nature Geoscience by scientists from the Potsdam Institute, Ireland’s Maynooth University and University College London.

The AMOC is driven by two vital components of ocean water: temperature and salt. In the North Atlantic, warm, salty water flows northward off the U.S. coastline, carrying heat from the tropics. But as it reaches the middle latitudes, it cools, and around Greenland, the cooling and the saltiness create enough density that the water begins to sink deep beneath the surface.

The water then swings back southward and travels all the way to the Southern Hemisphere, submerged, where it makes its way to the Antarctic as part of a global system of ocean currents. The entire system is known as the ocean’s thermohaline circulation (“thermo” meaning heat and “haline,” salt), and it plays many critical roles in the climate. It is also referred to as the global ocean conveyor belt, because it redistributes heat worldwide.

In the North Atlantic, most important is the transport of heat northward, which has a moderating effect on Europe’s climate in particular. But the circulation can be weakened by making northern water more fresh and less salty, and therefore less dense. That’s what climate change — through a combination of more rain and snow, more melting of Arctic sea ice, and huge freshwater pulses from Greenland — is thought to be doing.

[E]ven the modest slowing of 15 percent has been accompanied by odd temperature patterns in the ocean and the significant upending of certain key fisheries, such as lobster and cod off the coast of New England.

In particular, a recurrent “cold blob” has been observed in the ocean to the south of Greenland — a large region that is bucking the overall global warming trend and instead showing a marked cooling pattern. Scientists think this is evidence that less warm water is reaching this region than previously, and that it may also be a result of runoff from the melting ice sheet.