Climate change is weakening the ocean currents that shape weather on both sides of the Atlantic

by Bob Berwyn, Inside Climate News


  • The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation is a system of ocean currents that distributes heat energy from the tropics towards the poles and causes cold water to flow towards the equator. This system is what shaped the climate of eastern North America and Western Europe, allowing the development of civilizations in the region
  • The system is weakening now more than ever within a 1000 year time span due to climate change
  • This could lead to extreme weather, sea-level rise along the coasts, ocean heatwaves, droughts, and heatwaves on land
  • Commercial and recreational fishing may be jeopardized due to the warming of waters along the continental shelf according to Vincent Saba of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center
  • The last significant shutdown of the Circulation happened 11,000 years ago and resulted in major climate changes

Scientists are increasingly warning that to avoid catastrophic impacts from climate change, the world’s governments must implement policies for massive greenhouse gas emissions reductions and begin a drawdown of carbon from the atmosphere within ten years. With 9 of 15 global tipping points now active, what we do today can either unleash an inhospitable hothouse Earth or secure a safe climate well into the future. For a safe and healthy future for all, endorse the Climate-Safe California Platform to implement scalable solutions that can reverse the climate crisis.

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Timothy M. Lenton et al. (2008): Tipping elements in the Earth's climate system. In: Proceedings of the National Academy of the Sciences. February 2008, doi:10.1073/pnas.0705414105

Nine ‘tipping points’ that could be triggered by climate change



  • While climate records are being routinely broken, the cumulative impact of these changes could also cause fundamental parts of the Earth system to change dramatically and irreversibly. These “tipping points” are thresholds where a tiny change could push a system into a completely new state.
  • In some cases, there is evidence that once the system has jumped to a different state, then if you remove the climate forcing, the climate system doesn’t just jump back to the original state – it stays in its changed state for some considerable time, or possibly even permanently.
  • The nine tipping points discussed include: 1. Shutdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation
    2. West Antarctic ice sheet disintegration
    3. Amazon rainforest dieback
    4. West African monsoon shift
    5. Permafrost and methane hydrates
    6. Coral reef die-off
    7. Indian monsoon shift
    8. Greenland ice sheet disintegration
    9. Boreal forest shift
  • This is not an exhaustive list – there are other parts of the Earth system that have the potential to display tipping point behavior.
  • Human society may also have “tipping points” that favor climate action.

The Climate Center’s rapid decarbonization campaign uses a timeline based on the latest scientific findings and supports achieving carbon neutrality by 2030.

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