What’s going on in the North Atlantic?

The North Atlantic between Newfoundland and Ireland is practically the only region of the world that has defied global warming and even cooled. Last winter there even was the coldest on record – while globally it was the hottest on record. Our recent study (Rahmstorf et al. 2015) attributes this to a weakening of the Gulf Stream System, which is apparently unique in the last thousand years.

The whole world is warming. The whole world? No! A region in the subpolar Atlantic has cooled over the past century – unique in the world for an area with reasonable data coverage (Fig. 1). So what’s so special about this region between Newfoundland and Ireland?

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Fig. 1 Linear temperature trend from 1900 to 2013. The cooling in the subpolar North Atlantic is remarkable and well documented by numerous measurements – unlike the cold spot in central Africa, which on closer inspection apparently is an artifact of incomplete and inhomogeneous weather station data.

It happens to be just that area for which climate models predict a cooling when the Gulf Stream System weakens (experts speak of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation or AMOC, as part of the global thermohaline circulation). That this might happen as a result of global warming is discussed in the scientific community since the 1980s – since Wally Broecker’s classical Nature article “Unpleasant surprises in the greenhouse?” Meanwhile evidence is mounting that the long-feared circulation decline is already well underway.

The Atlantic circulation (AMOC) as part of the global overturning circulation of the oceans in an animation from NASA.

Difficult to measure

Climate models have long predicted such a slowdown – both the current 5th and the previous 4th IPCC report call a slowdown in this century “very likely”, which means at least 90% probability. When emissions continue unabated (RCP8.5 scenario), the IPCC expects 12% to 54% decline by 2100 (see also the current probabilistic projections of Schleussner et al. 2014). But the actual past evolution of the flow is difficult to reconstruct owing to the scarcity of direct measurements. Therefore, in our study we use data on sea surface temperatures in order to infer the strength of the flow: we use the temperature difference between the region most strongly influenced by the AMOC and the rest of the northern hemisphere.

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Fig. 2 Schematic of the Atlantic circulation. Surface currents in red, deep currents in blue, sea-ice cover in winter in white. (Source: Rahmstorf, Nature 1997)

Now we are not the first to have inferred from temperature data that the flow must have weakened.  Evidence for this was already presented by Dima and Lohmann 2010 or Drijfhout et al. 2012, among others (for further references see the introduction of our paper).

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