The ocean circulation that is responsible for England’s mild climate appears to be slowing down. The shift is not sudden or dramatic, as in the 2004 sci-fi movie “The Day After Tomorrow,” but it is a real effect that has consequences for the climates of eastern North America and Western Europe.
Also unlike in that movie, and in theories of long-term climate change, these recent trends are not connected with the melting of the Arctic sea ice and buildup of freshwater near the North Pole. Instead, they seem to be connected to shifts at the southern end of the planet, according to a recent University of Washington study in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.
“It doesn’t work like in the movie, of course,” said Kathryn Kelly, an oceanographer at the UW’s Applied Physics Laboratory. “The slowdown is actually happening very gradually, but it seems to be happening like predicted: It does seem to be spinning down.”
The study looked at data from satellites and ocean sensors off Miami that have tracked what’s known as the Atlantic overturning circulation for more than a decade. Together they show a definite slowdown since 2004, confirming a trend suspected before then from spottier data.
Looking at other observations to determine the cause, the researchers ruled out what had been the prime suspect until now: that massive melting and freshening in the North Atlantic could stop water from sinking and put the brakes on the overturning circulation, which moves warmer water north along the ocean’s surface and sends cold water southward at depths.