‘Very serious consequences’: Researchers predict Atlantic Ocean current will collapse by 2060

COPENHAGEN, Denmark — The Atlantic Ocean current may collapse by the middle of the century. The grave warning comes from University of Copenhagen scientists, who believe there could be a significant shift in temperatures in Europe and the tropics by 2060 due to climate change.

Their research predicts that crucial ocean currents responsible for balancing the globe’s heat and precipitation between tropical and North Atlantic regions could cease to function if current greenhouse gas emissions continue. This prediction starkly contrasts with the latest findings from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC).

The currents in question, formally known as the Thermohaline Circulation or the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), have been a staple of Earth’s climate since the last ice age. The AMOC plays an essential role in distributing heat and cold between the North Atlantic and the tropics. However, the researchers’ data, which delves into ocean temperature records over the last 150 years, indicates with 95 percent certainty that this system will collapse between the years 2025 and 2095, most likely around 2057.

“Shutting down the AMOC can have very serious consequences for Earth’s climate, for example, by changing how heat and precipitation are distributed globally,” says Peter Ditlevsen, professor at the Niels Bohr Institute, in a university release. “While a cooling of Europe may seem less severe as the globe as a whole becomes warmer and heat waves occur more frequently, this shutdown will contribute to an increased warming of the tropics, where rising temperatures have already given rise to challenging living conditions. Our result underscores the importance of reducing global greenhouse gas emissions as soon as possible.”

sun ocean
(Photo by Jeremy Bezanger on Unsplash)

These predictions stand in contradiction to the latest IPCC report, which deems such a drastic change in the thermohaline circulation improbable this century.

A notable aspect of this research is the observation of “early warning signals” that hint at the impending instability of the ocean currents. Until now, the development of specialized statistical methods has paved the way for more accurate predictions of when this shutdown might occur.

The team utilized sea surface temperatures from a particular North Atlantic region, tracked from 1870 to the present, to draw their conclusions. This data acts as “fingerprints” that testify to the AMOC’s strength, though it has only been directly measured for the past 15 years.

“Using new and improved statistical tools, we’ve made calculations that provide a more robust estimate of when a collapse of the Thermohaline Circulation is most likely to occur, something we had not been able to do before,” explains Susanne Ditlevsen, professor in the department of mathematical sciences at the University of Copenhagen.

Historically, abrupt shifts between the present state of the AMOC and a collapsed state have been witnessed during ice age climates, resulting in drastic 10 to 15-degree changes over a single decade. In contrast, current climate change trends show a 1.5-degree increase over a century.

The study is published in the journal Nature Communications.

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