What Happened to Claims The Gulf Stream Is Going To Stop?

by Dr. Tim Ball on September 4, 2011

in Arctic,History,Oceans,Theory

Climate alarmists constantly search for claims of impending disaster. Usually they’re natural events they present as unnatural. Rarely does the actual outcome get published so people can keep track of false speculations.

For example, in 2005 a report speculated that a weakening of the Gulf Stream would cause significant cooling in Europe. The story played into a public primed by such a sequence the ridiculous movie The Day After Tomorrow. The story was revived as environmentalists and alarmists exploited the “world-will-end” potential of the BP oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico. But then alarmists are always ready to use and abuse a story without confirming the facts. Well what are those facts and what was the outcome?

The idea faded as predictions that it could stall by 2010 failed. However, the alarmists don’t give up easily. Now a study produces the headline “Newly Discovered Icelandic Current Could Change North Atlantic Climate Picture.” The headline shows how the game is played. In fact, they did not find a new current. They created a computer model that indicated a current might exist. The article says,

“The researchers used a numerical model to hypothesize where and how the NIJ is formed. “We’ve identified a new paradigm,” he said. “We’re hypothesizing a new, overturning loop” of warm water to cold.” Then we get the real purpose of the publicity. “While this scenario is far from certain, it is critical that researchers understand the overturning process, he said, to be able to make accurate predictions about the future of climate and circulation interaction.”

We need more research money. No! What you need is real data not imaginary data from computer models that don’t work.

The earlier alarmism evolved from claims about Arctic melting. Even supposedly informed sources like The Economist got it wrong. In the September 9, 2006 issue they wrote,

“The Gulf Stream is driven both by the rotation of the Earth and by a deep-water current called the Thermohaline Circulation”

Carl Wunsch, Cecil and Ida Green Professors of Physical Oceanography at MIT corrected them in a September 28, 2006 letter. This was fine but they demonstrate they don’t fully understand about climate change either. They concluded,

“Many real climate change effects exist and require urgent attention; focusing on near-impossible Gulf Stream failure is an unproductive distraction.”

The Gulf Stream issue is a distraction, but there are no climate change effects that require “urgent “ attention.

Of course that doesn’t stop alarmists and especially politicians who make a career out of alarmism. Here is the former Executive Director of the Canadian branch of the Sierra Club and now Leader of the Canadian Green Party writing in June 2006.

“It suggested that it was plausible that the Gulf Stream could stall by 2010. This would be caused by rapidly melting polar ice changing the salinity of the ocean. The ice is fresh water and its release would push down on the more saline currents, slowing and potentially stopping the vast ocean conveyor belt of currents. If the Gulf Stream were to stall, the study anticipates widespread social and institutional collapse as droughts lead to collapses in food production, displaced environmental refugees press on other borders for resources, soil erosion increases and wind speeds across Texas pick up. The study concluded that the risks of climate change are more significant than the risk of terrorism.”

The real risk is from eco-terrorism and ill-informed, exploitive leadership.

Use of the term Gulf Stream is wrong, but it is a part of general usage. Figure 1 shows general global ocean currents. The circular pattern in each ocean basin is called a gyre and is created by global winds. Tropical winds blow from east to west and in the North Atlantic create the flow labeled “North Equatorial”. Mid-latitude winds blow from west to east and drive the pole-ward side of the gyre. Technically, the Gulf Stream is the portion of the gyre as it flows past the US east coast. Once it reaches Cape Cod it‘s driven by the westerly flow and becomes the North Atlantic Drift.

General Surface Wind Driven Ocean Currents

Figure 1. General Surface Wind Driven Ocean Currents

The entire flow is a massive river of water carrying large volumes of heat to high arctic waters so that the port of Murmansk at 69°N is ice-free year round. Meanders develop as the river crosses the Atlantic, as they do in any fluid or gas passing through a uniform medium.

The concept of glacial meltwater stopping the Gulf Stream is referred to as a thermohaline situation. Wind, different temperatures, and different water density, the latter caused by different amounts of salt content drive water movement. A freshwater intrusion would change the salt content. The original idea of freshwater changing the Gulf Stream pattern evolved from work, especially by Jim Teller of the University of Manitoba, on Glacial Lake Agassiz. This is believed to be the largest freshwater lake in Earth’s history. Figure 2 shows the lake relative to the Laurentide ice sheet 8200 years ago.

Laurentide Ice Sheet

Figure 2. Laurentide Ice Sheet

At this point the ice dam broke and the lake emptied rapidly into Hudson Bay and out to the Labrador Sea and the North Atlantic. They claim this is coincident with and therefore the cause of a cold event. There is no doubt Agassiz was large. Figure 3: shows the extent at various stages, which you can compare with Lake Superior. For further comparison, Lake Winnipeg in the centre of the diagram is the 13th largest lake by surface area in the world today.

Major problems with the concept of the event 8200 years ago include; the rate at which it occurred; the much greater extent of sea ice the freshwater would create; but a big problem is the volume of water involved. They estimate 150,000 km3, but this wouldn’t have been released at the same time and is a small amount relative to the volumes of seawater in Hudson Bay, Hudson Straits and the North Atlantic. Oceanographer Carl Wunsch said,

“The Gulf Stream will not stop flowing until the Earth stops rotating and the winds stop blowing.”

Elizabeth May is talking about melting of polar ice that would create an influx of freshwater. If it is Arctic Ocean ice it’s nonsense because 70 percent of the ice melts every summer and the Gulf Stream does not stop. If it is the Greenland icecap, a considerable amount of warming has to occur before any significant amounts of ice melts. Figure 4 shows the temperature pattern recorded in Greenland ice cores for the last 11,000 years. Over the almost the entire period of the Holocene Optimum from 9000 to 3000 years ago the Earth was warmer than today. The cooler spike at 8200 years is visible but at its lowest it was not much cooler than today. As a recent study notes,

”The climate in the northern regions has never been milder since the last Ice Age than it was about 6000-7000 years ago.”

Greenland Temperatures

Figure 4. Greenland Temperatures - last10,000 years. Present on left.

There is no evidence of the Gulf Stream stopping during the previous warmer periods, yet melting of the Greenland ice cap was occurring.

It is still functioning well as the composite global map produced by NOAA of snow and ice conditions for February 4, 2011 illustrates. The open water up around Scandinavia and into the Arctic Ocean north of Russia is very evident.

Snow and Ice Extent Feb 4, 2011

Figure 5. Snow and Ice Extent Feb 4, 2011

Computer anomalies trigger unjustified panics and too often lead to alarmist statements. There’s a desperate desire to blame humans for any natural changes. To speculate beyond known facts or reason to keep the public in constant fear so they can be controlled. All this is another measure of the exploitation of natural sciences for political gain. H. L. Mencken provides the motive.

“The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.”

Ms. May claims climate change is a greater threat than terrorism. Actually, eco-terrorism and the incorrect and exploitive use of data for political gain are a greater threat than climate change.