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The Gulf Stream is the ocean current that is active throughout the Atlantic Ocean and has kept northwestern Europe warmer than other lands of comparable latitude and has encouraged the development of civilization there. Changing global climatic conditions threaten the stable continuation of the Gulf Stream with far-reaching implications for human settlement. The water of the oceans continually circulates in response to tidal and geological processes. One major system, which gives rise to the Gulf Stream, is produced by the westward movement of water caused by the trade winds that drive water at up to four miles per hour through Florida in the United States and then northwards past the Bahamas.
This flow of water forms a kind of barrier or border between bodies of water of different temperatures or origins. It isolates the Sargasso Sea, for example, from colder regions that surround it and can cause water temperatures to vary by up to 100 degrees C over a comparatively small area. The water travels north toward the Gulf of Hatteras, and then east past Greenland, and ultimately to the continent of Europe. The force of the water has been much diminished by this time, and part of the way across the Atlantic it divides into two parts: one of which flows toward northwest Europe, and the other toward the Iberian Peninsula where it constitutes the Canary Current.
The Gulf Stream is one important example of the phenomenon of water movements throughout the world known as the Ocean Conveyor. The Gulf Stream causes waters of different temperatures to mix together and this results in turbulence in the water that increases the amount of salt and minerals present. Consequently, the amount of fish in the area is increased and this has made areas serviced by the Gulf Stream among the most commercially valuable fishing grounds in the world.
Research has shown that during a previous ice age, more cold water was forced into the Gulf Stream as it passed between Greenland and Scotland and this caused a rapid decrease in temperatures, perhaps as much as five degrees C over just a few decades.
As global warming melts the Greenland ice sheet, a similar impact is expected. Increased fresh water (from melted ice) and precipitation associated with global warming will reduce the density of the water and this will force the Gulf Stream to lower levels at which its heat will further dissipate. It is possible that the Gulf Stream will then be interrupted or come to an end altogether. This would reduce the temperatures in northwestern Europe and provide more severe winters, which is likely to produce an increase in demand or energy for heating. However, current predictions suggest that the cooling effect will be more than compensated for by increases in atmospheric temperatures globally. Previous examples of abrupt climate change have resulted in the vulnerability of food crops and fresh water, and the destruction of civilizations.
- Seager et al., “Is the Gulf Stream Responsible for Europe’s Mild Winters?” Quarterly Journal of the Royal Meteorological Society (v.128/586, 2002);
- Alan P. Trujillo and Harold V. Thurman, Essentials of Oceanography (Prentice Hall, 2004).