As the world tries to manage the novel coronavirus pandemic, it can feel difficult to get people to discuss any subject other than vaccines, masks, and when we might return to “normal” life. That said, climate change is stopping for no one, and as a recent study published in Nature and Climate Change warns us, an extremely important current system in the Atlantic Ocean is showing signs of instability due to climate change. That system of currents, mind you, can impact not only temperatures in the Northern Hemisphere but could have serious consequences on the entire planet if it were to collapse.
According to the study, which was published on Thursday, researchers say they’ve found an “almost complete loss” of “stability” of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) within the last century. The AMOC helps exchange warm and cool water via the Atlantic Ocean; for example, warm water is moved north, and from there, colder water from up north sinks and goes south to the tropics.
So, if this transfer of warm and cool doesn’t happen, for example, what might we deal with? A collapse in circulation could impact weather patterns around the world, like more severe winters and shifting monsoon and drought seasons. Rising sea levels, too, could be a serious effect. Reaching even further out, a circulation system collapse could destabilize climate systems in the Amazon rainforest or even the Arctic.
“Imagine a chair, which can be either shifted (with all four legs remaining on the ground) or tilted,” study author Niklas Boers told CNN in an email. “Both change the position of the chair (corresponding to the change in mean AMOC strength), but in the first case the stability of the chair won’t be affected, while in the latter case there exists a critical point. If we tilt the chair just slightly further, it will fall down.”
What can we do? According to Boers, reduce greenhouse gas emissions. “Every gram of extra greenhouse gas in the atmosphere will increase to the probability of an AMOC collapse in the future,” he told the outlet. “So emitting as little as possible, both on individual but of course also on collective and international level, is the key.”
One thing this study can’t say for sure is when this collapse could happen. The system is so farreaching and involved, scientists will likely be studying it for years just to gather information and contextualize it. According to Reuters, other climate models suggest that while the AMOC will likely continue to weaken, a collapse before 2100 is unlikely to happen.
Has the AMOC ever collapsed before? According to The Washington Post, studies suggest that it has. Some research suggests that at the end of the last ice age, a glacial lake ruptured an ice sheet in North America. This led to freshwater plunging into the Atlantic, which ultimately halted the AMOC. The result? Life got really, really cold in the Northern Hemisphere—possibly for as long as 1,000 years.
Talking about climate change can be both overwhelming and apathy-inducing. Given how much we know about the impact corporations have on the planet, it can feel difficult to garner the energy to add one more responsibility to our daily lives when it comes to living in a more eco-friendly way. Too, between “greenwashing” and downright contradictory advice (go vegan or buy local meat?), it can feel like we’re never winning.
It’s true that corporations are the most at blame. Republicans, too, couldn’t care less about our planet when compared to the bottom line of investors and the ultra-wealthy. Big, structural changes need to happen to save the planet—and the choices we make every day do, eventually, add up. Reducing how much we consume, reusing (or passing on) what we have, and being mindful about what we buy and what businesses we support all matter. Climate change can feel depressingly overwhelming, but we can keep pushing our elected officials to act with the planet in mind, and we can keep making the choices accessible to us to create a better tomorrow, too.
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