Atlantic Ocean Currents are Weakening, May Bring More Winter Storms and Summer Heat Waves

Two new scientific papers have confirmed that currents in the Atlantic Ocean are slowing down. Ocean currents play a large role in global weather, and a slowdown in the Atlantic could mean serious weather changes, particularly in Europe and North America.

The two studies, both published in the online journal Nature on Thursday, presented evidence to show that ocean currents in the Atlantic are changing. Both studies focused on the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, a system of ocean currents found in the North Atlantic.

One study measured circulation patterns and temperature changes from a 5.2 million square mile patch of cold water in the North Atlantic to better understand how today's currents compare with those of the past, IFL Science reported. The second study used a combination of three methods to understand how currents have changed over time. This involved observing changes in the size of sediments on the ocean floor, looking at temperature patterns over time and analyzing the types of organisms that lived on the ocean floor throughout various moments in time.

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Both reports gave the same conclusion: Currents in the Atlantic Ocean are slowing down. The first study estimated that these currents have slowed down by 15 percent, putting them at the slowest they have been in 1,500 years.

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The sun sets over a beachfront along the Atlantic coast in Montalivet-les-Bains, France. Ocean currents are slowing down, and the consequences may be grim. Regis Duvignau/Reuters

David J.R. Thornalley, senior lecturer of paleoclimate at University College London and senior study author for the research that looked at the size of sediments on the ocean floor, told Newsweek that although ocean currents have slowed down in the past because of natural occurrences, this most recent slowdown is human induced as a result of climate change.

The slowing down of the currents could have significant weather effects. The ocean helps to retain heat and distribute this heat throughout the planet. Heat absorption cause the ocean to evaporate into the atmosphere and eventually form rains and storms, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. The currents help to transport this warm water from the equators toward the poles, and transport cold water from these areas back to the equator. This helps to even out global water patterns. If the current slows down, global weather patterns will be affected as a result, but just how much they will be affected is still not clear.

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"It depends on how severe the weakening will be in the future. The current suggestions are that it will be a gradual weakening. But the problem is that there is a possibility that the weakening could accelerate," Thornalley told Newsweek.

According to Thornalley, weakening currents in the Atlantic are associated with an array of adverse weather consequences.

"Weakening currents in the Atlantic can cause a shift in the location that storms cross the Atlantic," said Thornalley. "This would bring more storms to Europe in winter, while heat waves may be more common in summer."

That doesn't mean that humans are completely helpless. Thornalley explained that for now, our best bet is to try to stop global warming from happening and to cut down on our greenhouse gas emissions.