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CC: Britain Faces Big Chill As Ocean Current Slows

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    Message 1 of 1 , May 11, 2005
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      NHNE News List
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      By Jonathan Leake
      The Times Online
      May 8, 2005


      Climate change researchers have detected the first signs of a slowdown in
      the Gulf Stream -- the mighty ocean current that keeps Britain and Europe
      from freezing.

      They have found that one of the "engines" driving the Gulf Stream -- the
      sinking of supercooled water in the Greenland Sea -- has weakened to less
      than a quarter of its former strength.

      The weakening, apparently caused by global warming, could herald big changes
      in the current over the next few years or decades. Paradoxically, it could
      lead to Britain and northwestern and Europe undergoing a sharp drop in

      Such a change has long been predicted by scientists but the new research is
      among the first to show clear experimental evidence of the phenomenon.

      Peter Wadhams, professor of ocean physics at Cambridge University, hitched
      rides under the Arctic ice cap in Royal Navy submarines and used ships to
      take measurements across the Greenland Sea.

      "Until recently we would find giant 'chimneys' in the sea where columns of
      cold, dense water were sinking from the surface to the seabed 3,000 metres
      below, but now they have almost disappeared," he said.

      "As the water sank it was replaced by warm water flowing in from the south,
      which kept the circulation going. If that mechanism is slowing, it will mean
      less heat reaching Europe."

      Such a change could have a severe impact on Britain, which lies on the same
      latitude as Siberia and ought to be much colder. The Gulf Stream transports
      27,000 times more heat to British shores than all the nation's power
      supplies could provide, warming Britain by 5-8C.

      Wadhams and his colleagues believe, however, that just such changes could be
      well under way. They predict that the slowing of the Gulf Stream is likely
      to be accompanied by other effects, such as the complete summer melting of
      the Arctic ice cap by as early as 2020 and almost certainly by 2080. This
      would spell disaster for Arctic wildlife such as the polar bear, which could
      face extinction.

      Wadhams's submarine journeys took him under the North Polar ice cap, using
      sonar to survey the ice from underneath. He has measured how the ice has
      become 46% thinner over the past 20 years. The results from these surveys
      prompted him to focus on a feature called the Odden ice shelf, which should
      grow out into the Greenland Sea every winter and recede in summer.

      The growth of this shelf should trigger the annual formation of the sinking
      water columns. As sea water freezes to form the shelf, the ice crystals
      expel their salt into the surrounding water, making it heavier than the
      water below.

      However, the Odden ice shelf has stopped forming. It last appeared in full
      in 1997. "In the past we could see nine to 12 giant columns forming under
      the shelf each year. In our latest cruise, we found only two and they were
      so weak that the sinking water could not reach the seabed," said Wadhams,
      who disclosed the findings at a meeting of the European Geosciences Union in

      The exact effect of such changes is hard to predict because currents and
      weather systems take years to respond and because there are two other areas
      around the north Atlantic where water sinks, helping to maintain
      circulation. Less is known about how climate change is affecting these.

      However, Wadhams suggests the effect could be dramatic. "One of the
      frightening things in the film The Day After Tomorrow showed how the
      circulation in the Atlantic Ocean is upset because the sinking of cold water
      in the north Atlantic suddenly stops," he said.

      "The sinking is stopping, albeit much more slowly than in the film -- over
      years rather than a few days. If it continues, the effect will be to cool
      the climate of northern Europe."

      One possibility is that Europe will freeze; another is that the slowing of
      the Gulf Stream may keep Europe cool as global warming heats the rest of the
      world -- but with more extremes of weather.


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      Published by David Sunfellow
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