In the 2004 blockbuster “The Day After Tomorrow,” the world faced a doomsday scenario: Global warming was causing the Earth’s mighty ocean currents to shut down, bringing about a new ice age.
The apocalyptic plot was something cooked up by Hollywood, but its origins are steeped in reality — and it’s happening now, scientists say.
A major system of currents in the Atlantic Ocean that carries millions of cubic meters of water north each day is slowing down, according to a new peer-reviewed study published in the journal Nature. That system is known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC.
“We know somewhere out there is a tipping point where this current system is likely to break down,” said study co-author Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany. “We still don’t know how far away or close to this tipping point we might be. … This is uncharted territory.”
Think of the movement as a large conveyor belt: The currents ferry warm water north from the Gulf toward the North Pole. There, the water gets colder and then is redistributed back south via the deep ocean.
But scientists say climate change is disrupting the belt by melting the ice in the Arctic, including from Greenland. That means freshwater, which is less dense than salt water, is draining into the ocean and slowing down the currents. That would spell trouble for parts of the world such as the East Coast of the United States, which is susceptible to rising sea levels, and Europe, which could experience more extreme winters and stormier weather.
A change in the ocean’s circulation could also be disruptive to U.S. fisheries, which studies have shown are being devastated by warming waters.