Thursday, March 13, 2008

Gulf Stream revisited in Nature magazine

Climate Feedback, by Quirin Schiermeier: It’s been quite a while since the Gulf Stream was last on the Nature cover. This week the old highlight is back.

Now that’s a topic which has caused an awful lot of confusion before. “How global warming will cause the next ice age”, stuff like that. So just to be clear: the Gulf Stream is the mostly wind-driven upper limb of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, which ceaselessly transports warm surface water from the Caribbean to middle and high latitudes on the other side of the Atlantic. Yes, ceaselessly. As long as the Earth keeps rotating there’s really nothing in the world (not even global warming) that could bring it to a halt.

It is common knowledge - and true - that the British Isles and Scandinavia enjoy a much warmer climate than Newfoundland or Labrador thanks to the Gulf Stream. But its climatic influence goes far beyond that, a US-Japanese team report in a paper in Nature this week.

They detected the Gulf Stream’s signature in the entire lower atmosphere - namely in air and cloud temperatures, rain bands, pressure fields and wind convergence - above its meandering cross-Atlantic course, and far inland in Europe.

That the influence of the Gulf Stream might penetrate deeply into the atmosphere has been previously assumed. Firm evidence that this is indeed the case, and vehemently so, comes from the combination of satellite observations, operational weather analysis and atmospheric circulation models which the team utilised for their study.

Very likely the Gulf Stream’s direct local effects on the atmosphere are tele-connected, via planetary atmospheric waves, with weather conditions in far-away regions. How frequent and pronounced these remote responses might be is not at all clear. But it seems at least as if Gulf Stream-driven atmospheric dynamics over the North Atlantic have a marked influence on hemisphere-wide climatology.

This, you’ve guessed it, adds another piece to the climate change puzzle. Come what may, the Gulf Stream will not ‘run dry’. But its strength does vary, and a possible weakening of the Atlantic overturning circulation, to which it belongs, is unlikely to leave the Gulf Stream unaffected.

A new ice age will not come over Europe because of that, but storm tracks and rainfall patterns could be affected in rather unpredictable ways.

No comments: