The ocean current commonly known as the Gulf Stream is hurtling towards a terrifying tipping point, according to scientists in an article published in the journal Nature Climate Change. Its collapse could threaten civilization as we know it.

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The strong current, which scientists call the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), has been compared to a conveyor belt bringing warm surface water from the Gulf of Mexico north into the Atlantic Ocean. It simultaneously sends cold, deep, low-salinity water southwards.

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“The study method cannot give us an exact timing of a possible collapse, but the analysis presents evidence that the AMOC has already lost stability, which I take as a warning that we might be closer to an AMOC tipping than we think,” said Levke Caesar, a postdoctoral researcher at Maynooth University in Ireland. Caesar was not involved in the research.

The AMOC influences the climate of the east coast of North America and the coasts of northwestern Africa and western Europe. If it failed, sea levels would rise on the U.S.’ Atlantic coast, threatening cities. This could also decimate the world’s food supply, as it would affect rainfall from South America to India and West Africa. Additionally, the Antarctic ice sheets and the Amazon rainforest would be in even more trouble than they already are.

Niklas Boers of the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research in Germany was surprised by what he found in his recently published research. “The signs of destabilisation being visible already is something that I wouldn’t have expected and that I find scary,” he said, as reported by The Guardian. “It’s something you just can’t [allow to] happen.”

As the title of Boers’s paper states, “Observation-based early-warning signals for a collapse of the AMOC.” Boers analyzed ice-core data from the last 100,000 years and discovered that the AMOC has a fast, strong state and a slow, weak state. For millennia, AMOC moved fast. But as global temperatures rise, the AMOC could suddenly go sluggish. This might happen in 10 years. Or maybe 50. Nobody knows, because how much CO2 is necessary to destroy AMOC is unknown. 

“So the only thing to do is keep emissions as low as possible,” said Boers. “The likelihood of this extremely high-impact event happening increases with every gram of CO2 that we put into the atmosphere.”

Via The Guardian

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