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Picture of the Atlantic recorded to help understand climate change

August 24, 2007 at 11:18 am

The dramatic events that took place in the Hollywood blockbuster film The Day After Tomorrow might soon be as immediate as the title denotes. The disastrous environmental events which occur in the film (New York City being completely flooded and frozen over) depict ocean currents such as The Gulf Stream in the Atlantic ocean being destroyed, resulting in the ocean becoming an ice-rink. According to new breakthrough research this might not be as ‘science-fiction’ as we would all like to think.

The first detailed pictures of the Atlantic’s currents have been produced by scientists from the National Oceanography Centre (NOC) in Southampton in the UK. The pictures map in precise detail where and how the current circulation changes throughout the length of one year, and this can be then vital when looking at the ocean’s effect and impact due to global warming. European currents of warmer waters in their seas come from the Atlantic and the most well known current, The Gulf Stream. These keep the temperature at a moderate 4 – 6 degrees.

This new research began in 2004 and principally involved a series of instruments being ‘strung out’ on a cable on a voyage at 26.5 degrees north from Africa to the Bahamas. The cables then drifted behind the boats measuring flow, salinity, temperature, and the pressure of the sea water. Then over the last few years, the scientists have been able to add their new data to other existing data from around the world to paint a very detailed picture of the movements and changes in the Atlantic’s currents. They have concluded that the circulation of the ocean does change significantly in one single year.

The Gulf Stream could one day be completely non-existent if the earth’s temperature continues to rise and the sea’s temperature level drops drastically when ice around the Arctic Circle melts. The figures announced by the scientists at this stage are around 30%, in terms of how much the circulation has weakened.

Stuart Cunningham, who is one of the key scientists in the research said, “The Atlantic Ocean carries a quarter of the global northwards heat flux, so having the information to plug into climate models will be a major addition.”

This study is a breakthrough in its field. Before it, the historical records weren’t always reliable or conclusive enough. The new picture gives scientists and environmentalists a real-time map of the ocean’s flow from ‘top to bottom and from side to side.’

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