Evidence for North Atlantic current shut-down ~120 ka ago

Gulf stream map
Warming surface currents of the North Atlantic (credit: Wikipedia)

A stupendous amount of heat is shifted by ocean-surface currents, so they have a major influence over regional climates. But they are just part of ocean circulation systems, the other being the movement of water in the deep ocean basins. One driver of this world-encompassing system is water density; a function of its temperature and salinity. Cold saline water forming at the surface tends to sink, the volume that does being replaced by surface flow towards the site of sinking: effectively, cold downwellings ‘drag’ major surface currents along. This is especially striking in the North Atlantic where sinking cold brines are focused in narrow zones between Canada and Greenland and between Greenland and Iceland. From there the cold water flows southwards towards the South Atlantic at depths between 1 and 5 km. The northward compensating surface flow, largely from tropical seas of the Caribbean, is the Gulf Stream/North Atlantic Current whose warming influence on climate of western and north-western Europe extends into the Arctic Ocean.

Circulation in the Atlantic Ocean. the orange and red water masses are those of the Gulf stream and North Atlantic Deep Water (credit: Science,  Figure 1 in Galaasen et al. 2014)
Circulation in the Atlantic Ocean. the orange and red water masses are those of the Gulf stream and North Atlantic Deep Water (credit: Science, Figure 1 in Galaasen et al. 2014)


Since the discovery of this top-to-bottom ‘conveyor system’ of ocean circulation oceanographers and climatologists have suspected that sudden climate shifts around the North Atlantic, such as the millennial Dansgaard-Oeschger events recorded in the Greenland ice cores, may have been forced by circulation changes. The return to almost full glacial conditions during the Younger Dryas, while global climate was warming towards the interglacial conditions of the Holocene and present day, has been attributed to huge volumes of meltwater from the North American ice sheet entering the North Atlantic. By reducing surface salinity and density the deluge slowed or shut down the ‘conveyor’ for over a thousand years, thereby drastically cooling regional climate. Such drastic and potentially devastating events for humans in the region seem not to have occurred during the 11.5 thousand years since the end of the Younger Dryas. Yet their suspected cause, increased freshwater influx into the North Atlantic, continues with melting of the Greenland ice cap and reduction of the permanent sea-ice cover of the Arctic Ocean, particularly accelerated by global warming.


The Holocene interglacial has not yet come to completion, so checking what could happen in the North Atlantic region depends on studying previous interglacials, especially the previous one – the Eemian – from 130 to 114 ka. Unfortunately the high-resolution climate records from Greenland ice cores do not extend that far back. On top of that, more lengthy sea-floor sediment cores rarely have the time resolution to show detailed records, unless, that is, sediment accumulated quickly on the deep sea bed. One place that seems to have happened is just south of Greenland. Cores from there have been re-examined with an eye to charting the change in deep water temperature from unusually thick sediment sequences spanning the Eemian interglacial (Galaasen, E.V. and 7 others 2014. Rapid reductions in North Atlantic Deep Water during the peak of the last interglacial period. Science, v. 343, 1129-1132).


The approach taken by the consortium of scientiosts from Norway, the US, France and Britain was to analyse the carbon-isotope composition of the shells of foraminifers that lived in the very cold water of the ocean floor during the Eemian. The ratio of 13C to 12C, expressed as δ13C, fluctuates according to the isotopic composition of the water in which the forams lived. What show up in the 130-114 ka period are several major but short-lived falls in δ13C from the general level of what would then have been North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW). It seems that five times during the Eemian the flow of NADW slowed and perhaps stopped for periods of the order of a few hundred years. If so, then the warming influence of the Gulf Stream and North Atlantic Current would inevitably have waned through the same intervals. Confirmation of that comes from records of surface dwelling forams. This revelation should come as a warning: if purely natural shifts in currents and climate were able to perturb what had been assumed previously to be stable conditions during the last interglacial, what might anthropogenic warming do in the next century?



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Short fuse on clathrate bomb?

Structure of a gas hydrate (methane clathrate)...
Gas hydrate (methane clathrate) block embedded in seabed sediment (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

The biggest tsunami to affect inhabitants of Britain, mentioned in the earlier post Landslides and multiple dangers, emanated from the Storegga Slide in the northern North Sea west of Norway. That submarine debris flow was probably launched by gas hydrates beneath the sea bed breaking down to release methane thereby destabilising soft sediments on the continental slope. Similar slides were implicated in breaking Europe-America communications in the 20th century, such as the Grand Banks Slide of 1929 that severed submarine cables up to 600 km from the source of the slide. Even now, much Internet traffic is carried across oceans along optic-fibre cables, breakages disrupting and slowing services. A more mysterious facet of clathrate breakdown is its possible implication in unexplained and sudden losses of ships. When gas escapes to the surface, the net density of seawater decreases, the more so as the proportion of bubbles increases. Ship design and cargo loading rests on an assumed water density range from fresh to salt water and for different temperatures at high and low latitudes.

Gulf stream map
Gulf stream map (credit: Wikipedia)

The Atlantic seaboard of the USA hosts some of the best-studied accumulations of clathrates in the top 100-300 m of seabed sediments. Since their discovery these ‘cage complexes’ of mainly methane and carbon dioxide trapped within molecules of water ice have been studied in detail. Importantly, the temperatures at which they form and the range over which they remain stable depend on pressure and therefore depth below the sea surface. At atmospheric pressure solid methane hydrate is unstable at any likely temperature and requires -20°C to form at a pressure equivalent to 200 m water depth. Yet is stable at temperatures up to 10°C 500 m down and 20°C at a depth of 2 km. Modern sea water cools to around 0°C at depths greater than 1.5 km, so gas hydrates can form virtually anywhere that there is a source of methane or CO2 in seafloor sediment. In the sediments temperature increases sharply with depth beneath the seabed due to geothermal heat flow thereby limiting the clathrate stability zone to the top few hundred metres.

Two factors may lead to clathrate instability: falling sea level and sea-floor pressure or rising sea-floor temperature. Many gas-hydrate deposits, especially on the continental shelf and continental edge are likely to be close to their stability limits, hence the worries about destabilisation should global warming penetrate through the water column. The western North Atlantic is an area of especial concern because the Gulf Stream flows northward from the Caribbean to pass close to the US seaboard off the Carolinas: that massive flow of tropical warm water has been increasing during the last 5 thousand years so that its thermal effects are shifting westwards.

Geophysicists Benjamin Phrampus and Matthew Hornbach of the Southern Methodist University in Dallas, Texas have used thermal modelling to predict that gas-hydrate instability is imminent across 10 thousand square kilometres of the Caroline Rise (Phrampus, B.J. & Hornbach, M.J. 2012. Recent changes to the Gulf Stream causing widespread gas hydrate destabilization. Nature, v. 490, p. 527-530). As a test they analysed two seismic reflection profiles across the Carolina Rise, seeking anomalies known as bottom-simulating reflectors that signify free gas in the sediments. These are expected at the base of the gas-hydrate zone and their presence helps assess sediment temperature. At depths less than 1 km the base of the gas-hydrates modelled from the present temperature profile through the overlying seawater lies significantly above the base’s signature on seismic lines. The deeper levels probably formed under cooler conditions than now – probably eight degrees cooler – and may be unstable. If that is correct, the Caroline Rise area seems set to release around 2.5 Gt of methane to add to atmospheric greenhouse warming. The Storegga Slide also lies close to the northern track of the Gulf-Stream – North Atlantic Drift…