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A crucial system of ocean currents is on the verge of disintegration, which 'would affect every person on the planet'

If the globe keeps pumping out planet-heating pollution, experts warn, a crucial system of ocean currents might collapse within a few decades, which would be disastrous for global weather and “affect every person on the planet.”

The Gulf Stream is part of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Current, which might collapse by mid-century, according to a new study published on Tuesday in the journal Nature.

The AMOC is a tangled web of currents that moves water across the world like a massive conveyor belt. It carries warm water from the tropics up to the North Atlantic, where it cools, grows saltier, and descends to great depths before spreading southward.

It’s an essential part of the climate system and helps keep the world’s weather in check. Significant changes to the monsoon in the tropics and harsher winters in Europe and the United States would result from its demise.

The intensity of these currents depends on a delicate balance of temperature and salinity, and experts have been warning of its fragility for years as the climate crisis has escalated.

More freshwater flows into the ocean when the waters warm and ice melts, lowering the density of the water and making it less likely to sink. The conveyor belt stops moving when the water is either too fresh or too heated.

It’s not the first time. Over 12,000 years ago, rapid glacier melt shut off the AMOC, resulting in massive temperature variations of 10 to 15 degrees Celsius (18 to 27 degrees Fahrenheit) in the Northern Hemisphere within a decade.

“It’s that enormous and crucial that if it went down, it would have an effect on everyone on Earth,” according to Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution head Peter de Menocal, who was not engaged in the research.

The AMOC is expected to deteriorate this century, according to a 2019 assessment by the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, but its complete collapse before 2100 is highly improbable.

The findings of this latest study are far more concerning.

Since the AMOC has only been tracked continuously since 2004, the authors of the study sought seeking a far more extensive data collection, ideally one that demonstrated the AMOC’s behavior in the absence of anthropogenic climate change.

Peter Ditlevsen, a professor of climate physics at the University of Copenhagen and one of the authors of the study, stated that “we needed to go back in time” when referring to the research process. The researchers looked examined 150 years’ worth of data from 1870 to 2020 of sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic south of Greenland.

Ditlevsen remarked, “so if it cools, it’s because the AMOC is weakening.” The AMOC is responsible for bringing tropical water to the north, warming this region of the ocean. After accounting for the effects of human-caused global warming on the water temperature, the authors were able to analyze the dynamics of the shifting currents.

Having discovered “early warning signals” of major changes in the AMOC, they concluded “with high confidence” that it could shut down or collapse between the years 2025 and 2095. According to Ditlevsen, the most likely date of collapse is between the years 2039 and 2070.

To paraphrase, “It’s really scary,” he said. “You wouldn’t want to casually put that down on paper,” he said, adding, “we have high faith in the validity of this outcome.”

According to de Menocal, the study’s findings are “surprising and alarming.”

It has been obvious for some time, he said, that the AMOC will decline during the next few decades. A report from 2021 revealed that climate warming was already having an effect on the AMOC.

“But we haven’t had a timeline till today,”┬áde Menocal said, the study says that the collapse will happen around 2050, “which is a frighteningly soon date when you think about how it would affect the whole world.” However, he stressed that no observational evidence has yet shown that the AMOC is failing.

Professor of ocean physics from Germany’s University of Potsdam, Stefan Rahmstorf, who was not engaged in the study, noted that the findings support those of earlier studies.

The latest study adds to the evidence that the AMOC tipping point is considerably closer than we believed just a few years ago, but “there is still large uncertainty where it is,” he explained. There is now irrefutable scientific evidence that suggests a tipping point may be reached within the next decade or two.

In order to reduce world temperatures and slow melting in the Arctic, the report advocates for swift and effective efforts to slash pollution to zero.

This study’s key argument is that “we don’t have much time to do this,” de Menocal stated. And the stakes have increased.

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