Climate Change Broecker’s Great Ocean Conveyer
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The Great Ocean Conveyer Belt is a system of interrelated and interconnected ocean currents that circulate the planet (Broecker, 2010). The belt is a vital element and makes up part of the Earth’s Climatic system. As an element of deep sea circulation, it represents the important linkage between realms of the Earth’s climate system. The Conveyer belt is driven by the salt in the aftermath of evaporation as water moves from the Atlantic to the Pacific basin. Its most notable feature, however, is the production of deep in the northern Atlantic – thermohaline circulation- an aspect elaborated by Wust (1935) and Wust and Defant (1936) at least 50 years ago.
Illustration of the Great Ocean Conveyer Belt
The operation of the Great Ocean Conveyer Belt is such that plays a crucial role in maintaining the air temperature conditions across Western Europe especially during winters. The dense cold salty water (cooled by the cold winter air masses from the Canadian Arctic) of the Northern Atlantic sink while its currents move deeper into Antarctica. The water rises to the surface in the northeastern part of the Pacific Ocean, moving past Indonesia while navigating around Africa’s Cape of Good Hope and then north through the South and North Atlantic waters. Due to evaporation, the water is much warmer and saltier on the surface. Moving on the currents pass through the Gulf of Mexico, north of the continental shelf of eastern North America heading for Europe where it warm countries from the Great Britain to Norway (in the winter up to 9°F[5°C]) with its heat and moisture (Baird, 2012). As a result of the loss of heat to the atmosphere the now cool but salty water flows east to Greenland and Newfoundland where it submerges and a 1000-year cycle begins all over again.
The Great Ocean Conveyer belt allows the oceans to take in, retain and release massive quantities of solar energy, in the form of heat, around the globe (Broecker, 2010). In its absence, regions at the same latitude would experience the same average temperatures. However, due to this circulation, Norway- on the same latitude as Manitoba, Canada- registers an average annual temperature of 20°F warmer. Circulation is aided by fluctuations in the density of seawater; this lowers the ocean’s salinity by pumping enough fresh water on either side of Greenland so that water sinks no more. It is predicted that the Atlantic conveyor belt and Gulf Stream current would shut down in a couple of years, consequently bringing unpredictability to the climate (Cousteau, 2011). Though the total volume of fresh water needed to shut down the circulation is unknown, scientists believe that the last two sudden cooling’s in the Greenland ice core are early signs. These events; “Younger Drvas” and the “8200 years before present” occurred as a result of massive North America glacial meltdown floods into St.Lawrence River but the ice dams controlling the lakes broke. This addition of low-density fresh water partly or absolutely prevented the sinking of ocean waters in the North Atlantic hence slowing or completely stopping the Meridional Overturning Circulation. The Great Ocean Conveyer belt stayed dormant for 1100 years throughout the Younger Drves event but restarted later for reasons not yet established (Broecker, 2010). Furthermore, current computer models of the climate cannot simulate the observed but unexplained shutdown or startup of the Meridional Overturning Circulation at the beginning and end of the above mentioned period.
Image showing Central Greenland temperature over the past 20000 years from analysis of oxygen isotopes ratio in its ice core
The shutdown of the system would inevitably reduce the amount of heat in the North Atlantic, culminating to more severe cold temperatures in Europe and North America. A 2003 report put together by the Department of Defense documents the repercussions if the “8200 years” before present were to manifest today.
1. The average annual temperatures would drop to 5°F in North America and up to 6°F in Northern Europe. This would lead to massive crop failures and famine as witnessed in 1816 in Indonesia when ash from Tambora volcanic eruption blocked the sunrays and rendered the planet to an unprecedented severe winter.
2. There would be drought putting pressure on agricultural and water resources.
3. Regions in the Southern Hemisphere would experience average annual temperatures of up to 4°F.
4. Devastating winds and winter storms would be witnessed over North America and Europe.
Global thermohaline circulation has suddenly shut down and recovered in the past, resulting in climate change from warm to cold. However, scientists are certain that if global warming is limited to 2°C, the circulation would most likely not be disrupted. The risk is, nevertheless, greater than 50% if the global warming rises by 3°C to 5°C. Severe climate change has been a growing global issue of contention for decades. Most fear that global warming could affect the Great Ocean Conveyer belt that warms the North Atlantic, making Europe and parts of North America into Siberian-like conditions within a few decades (Alley, 2014). Since water circulates the planet in the same pattern, shifts in the Great Ocean Conveyer Belt could have serious global effects on climate and the ocean’s inhabitants. The oceans are our planet’s largest heat sinks since they absorb, store and gradually release massive amounts of heat in the atmosphere (Lozier, 2010).
The Great Ocean Conveyer Belt is invaluable to Earth’s climatic system. It is, however, affected by global climatic change trends due to the various elements involved and their interrelationships. With its abrupt impacts on the climate of one region of the planet, measures and scientific research are necessary to avoid another glaciations breakdown and untimely shutdown of the circulation. Given that the past shutdowns have no availing explanation as to why they shut down and under what circumstances they restarted, it’s clear that other climatic elements have to be in play to help understand the complex interrelations that link up these different but vital elements.
Alley, R. B. (2014). The Two-Mile Time Machine: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future: Ice Cores, Abrupt Climate Change, and Our Future. Princeton University Press.
Baird, J. R. (2012). U.S. Patent Application 13/416,065.
Broecker, W. (2010). The great ocean conveyor: discovering the trigger for abrupt climate change. Princeton
Cousteau, F. (2011). Ocean: the world’s last wilderness revealed. Dorling Kindersley Ltd.
Lozier, M. S. (2010). Deconstructing the conveyor belt. Science, 328(5985), 1507
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