Sunday, January 20, 2008

Rapid Watch will monitor the Gulf Stream

The Guardian reports that a “£16m system, called Rapid Watch, will use the latest underwater monitoring techniques to check whether cold water pouring south from melting Arctic ice sheets is diverting the current's warm waters away from Britain.” The program will distribute large number of unmanned submarines and underwater sensors across the Atlantic Ocean between Florida to the Canary Islands. The goal is to gather much more thorough and timely data about the Gulf Stream.

The failure of the Gulf Stream is the scenario behind the science fiction film, The Day After Tomorrow, in which arctic conditions overtook our heroes. The film was not a documentary, in case anyone needs reminding. The article points out that the fastest a collapse could occur is ten years or so. But Rapid Watch will tell us whether it’s underway, or about to happen.

Melting freshwater from the Greenland ice, threatens to slow down or stop the thermohaline circulation that is crucial for keeping the Gulf Stream in its current pattern, which provides mild temperatures for Britain. A recent study by the same scientists behind Rapid Watch showed that the Gulf Stream fluctuates widely in unpredictable ways. This makes ongoing measurement particularly important. How Britain would adapt to a straying Gulf Stream is another story, and a much more unpleasant one.

Illustration is the poster for The Day After Tomorrow.

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