Oceans 2011

The northern hemisphere winter season of 2010-2011 has been exceptionally cold. According to new research that has a lot to do with changes in ocean currents which goes to show that our climate is a delicately balanced thing.

Researchers have shown that around 10 000 to 20 000 years ago, as the last Ice Age was ending, the formation of water in the North-East Atlantic was repeatedly switching on and off. This alternating process would cause the climate to warm and cool for centuries at a time. This points to the fact that the circulation of the world’s oceans is an important regulator of global climate. The oceans are, in a way, the world’s air conditioner.

One way that oceans have this effect is through the heat carried by the ocean’s currents which are part of what is known as “the great ocean conveyor”. A vital part of the conveyor is the sinking of water in the North-East Atlantic. This sinking forms a kind of “hole” and warm tropical waters move northward to fill it. This movement of tropical waters helps to keep Europe warm to the extent that a significant drop in the sinking of water in the Atlantic can lead to a cooling by ten degrees Celsius throughout Europe.

The researchers in this study collected shells from small animals from the ocean floor of the North-East Atlantic. Radiocarbon testing of these shells can reveal how long it has been since water trapped in them was last at the surface of the sea. In turn this testing allowed the researchers to establish how quickly deep water was forming in the area.

The results showed that when deep water formation switched off, the deep water instead came from water that had originally formed near Antarctica and had spread rapidly northwards.

So while ocean currents are much more stable in their patterns now than they were at the time of the last Ice Age, this research shows how volatile and interlinked the various aspects of the earth’s climate are. As humans seek to grapple with their own role in that climate we need to take a holistic view of how the earth operates. Segmenting components of the climate will never lead to true understanding; the way forward lies in appreciating the connectedness of all elements on the planet and acknowledging that we are one of those elements.

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The WellBeing Team

The WellBeing Team

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