Updated Aug 6, 2021

Early signs of Gulf Stream collapse

Scientists have announced that warning signs have been seen of the potential collapse of the Gulf Stream, the effects of which could have devastating global consequences.

The Gulf Stream is part of a global-scale natural water cycle that is driven by both temperature and salt content. It begins near Florida and moves as a warm Atlantic Ocean current up the east coast of the US and Canada. It then moves towards Europe and essentially acts as an insulator for Western Europe, bringing warmer climates.

However, current research suggests that over the last century there has been an "almost complete loss of stability" in the Gulf Stream and that currents are at their slowest point in 1,600 years, with a complete shutdown now possible. This is due to rising temperatures and increasing amounts of freshwater being introduced into the Stream from melting ice sheets. Should this happen, the climate will be severely affected across the world, disrupting rains, bringing more uncertain and stormy weather and dropping temperatures across Europe. Furthermore, sea levels could rise in North America. This will have a significant impact on our ability to grow crops, on flooding and key infrastructure such as energy supplies which could become disrupted.

It is impossible to predict when a Gulf Stream collapse may happen. It could be very soon, or centuries away, but early signs indicate that it could now be a reality either way and, the scientists have stressed, must never be allowed to happen. Preventing it would require significant steps against CO2 emissions and climate change.

Niklas Boers from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research said, "The signs of destabilisation being visible already is something that I wouldn’t have expected and that I find scary," adding "So the only thing to do is keep emissions as low as possible. The likelihood of this extremely high-impact event happening increases with every gram of CO2 that we put into the atmosphere.”

The potential collapse of the Gulf Stream is one of several key tipping points for climate, some of which are already being seen. For instance, it was reported earlier in the year that the Amazon rainforest is no longer a carbon sink, i.e. it is no longer absorbing more CO2 than it is emitting. The world has also seen an increase of extreme weather events, including flooding and wildfires.

However, it is clear that we need an effective response to climate change, and soon. Pressure will be mounting on the attendees of the COP26 event in November 2021 to take brave and unpopular decisions to secure a global future.