Relax, Contrary to Media Reports, Research Shows Gulf Stream Collapse Is Not Occurring

A search of Google News for the term “climate change” today shows the mainstream media is abuzz with the claim human climate change is causing the collapse of the Gulf Stream, which could lead to mini-ice age. Data from multiple other studies indicate this claim is wrong.

CNN, The Guardian, the Washington Post, and other mainstream media outlets are reporting a recent Nature Climate Change study is warning human caused climate change is causing the collapse of a major ocean current, the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), and the Gulf Stream, which a feature of the AMOC. If this occurs it would have serious impact on climate, likely leading to a cooling of the planet.

CNN’s story, titled “A crucial ocean circulation is showing signs of instability. Its shutdown would have serious impacts on our weather,” is typical of the popular press’s misleading coverage of the report.

“A crucial system of currents in the Atlantic Ocean that helps control temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere and has implications for the entire planet’s weather systems is showing signs of instability due to human-made climate change, scientists say,” writes CNN. “Its collapse would have dire consequences for our weather and life on Earth.”

CNN’s statement presents a half-truth. The study does indicate the AMOC has slowed, over the course of the past century, becoming less consistent. However, contrary to media reports, the study itself makes it clear that whether the slowing AMOC represents a temporary, short-term fluctuation, or a long term shift, is unknown. Nor does the study indicate whether natural factors, which have caused such shifts throughout history, or human influenced climate change, are responsible for the slowing circulation.

The main point of the study is not to draw conclusions about the source of the changing circulation, but rather to suggest that the shifting pattern merits further study, serving as “a robust and general early-warning indicator for [possible] forthcoming critical transitions.”

As explained by meteorologist Anthony Watts in Climate at a Glance: Ocean Currents, this is not the first time climate alarmists have claimed human climate change is causing a dangerous slowing of ocean currents.

“For approximately 20 years, alarmists have claimed global warming was causing ocean currents to slow down to their slowest pace in over 1,000 years,” says Watts.

Peer reviewed research shows no consistent finding concerning whether major oceanic circulations have slowed, as suggested by the recent Nature Climate Change study, sped up, or remained stable, across the past 100 years.

A 2020 study published in Science Advances, came to a diametrically opposed conclusion than the recent Nature study, saying the ocean circulations have picked up speed.

“[W]e show a statistically significant increasing trend in the globally integrated oceanic kinetic energy since the early 1990s, indicating a substantial acceleration of global mean ocean circulation,” the authors of the Science Advances study write. “Although possibly influenced by wind changes associated with the onset of a negative Pacific decadal oscillation since the late 1990s, the recent acceleration is far larger than that associated with natural variability, suggesting that it is principally part of a long-term trend.”

Multiple other studies, for example here and here, have found no significant increase or decrease in the world’s major ocean circulation patterns. These studies conclude large scale ocean currents are stable.

Shifts in the AMOC and the Gulf Stream have happened throughout history and are entirely natural. To the extent possible, such shifts should be anticipated and planned for, but they are beyond human control.

Misrepresenting the findings of a particular report, as has been done here, or ignoring contrary evidence is the characteristic modus operandi of climate alarmists. This is just one more “throw it up against the wall and see what sticks,” scare story hashed out by climate alarmists to stampede the public into supporting restrictions on energy use purportedly to prevent climate change. In reality, the true goal of stoking climate alarm is to give global elites control over the world economy and peoples’ daily lives. As detailed in a recent report, elites have repeatedly admitted as much in their own words

H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett
H. Sterling Burnett, Ph.D., is the Director of the Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy and the managing editor of Environment & Climate News. In addition to directing The Heartland Institute's Arthur B. Robinson Center on Climate and Environmental Policy, Burett puts Environment & Climate News together, is the editor of Heartland's Climate Change Weekly email, and the host of the Environment & Climate News Podcast.

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  1. Ever since the film, “The Day After Tomorrow” alarmists have continued to promote the myth that a slowing of the Gulf Stream will lead to global cooling. Earth’s global radiation balance is sustained because the oceans and the atmosphere transport energy poleward.

    Longwave radiation to space largely emanates from the greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, with a smaller fraction through the atmospheric window. Thus a slowing of the gulf Stream/MOC and the oceanic energy transport requires a compensating increase in transport by the atmosphere.

    Over the recent four decades of global satellite monitoring there has been a warming of tropical surface waters (consistent with less poleward ocean transport of energy), a warming of the overlying atmosphere (coupled to ocean surface temperature through equatorial convection), and a warming of middle and high latitudes (with a strong wintertime bias consistent with the seasonal pattern of atmospheric energy transport).

    The ocean fluid has natural cycles of oscillation related to the surface gyres (excited by seasonally fluctuating west wind stress) and meridional overturning (excited by the seasonal pattern of polar negative buoyancy with wintertime formation of sea ice).

    The oceans are the inertial and thermal flywheels of the climate system and so-called climate change is a manifestation of natural and cyclic oscillations of the ocean circulations. Our climate is regulated by the restless seas.


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