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The deep ocean current around Antarctica, which has been stable for thousands of years, is at risk of slowing down in the next three decades due to the rising global temperature caused by carbon emissions. This current, known as the “overturning circulation,” plays an essential role in the stability of the climate, sea levels, and marine ecosystems by carrying heat, carbon, oxygen, and nutrients around the world. However, the melting ice caps around the South Pole are dumping vast amounts of freshwater into the ocean, making it less salty and dense, which could slow down deep water circulation by more than 40% by 2050, putting it on the path toward collapse.
The new scientific modeling by a team from the University of New South Wales, the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, the Australian National University, and CSIRO (Australia’s governmental scientific research agency) reveals the dramatic impact of melting ice sheets on the overturning circulation that regulates Earth’s climate. With the collapse of the deep current, oceans below 13,000 feet (4,000 meters) would stagnate, trapping nutrients in the deep ocean and reducing the nutrients available to Support marine life near the ocean surface.
The study’s scientific modeling is based on a “high emissions scenario,” which is a global trajectory if countries fail to cut (still-rising) emissions in the coming decades. The melting of the polar ice sheets is expected to accelerate as the planet heats up. The Australian Science Media Centre has even compared the scenario to the sci-fi disaster movie, The Day After Tomorrow, which tells the fictional story of global catastrophe caused by the collapse of the North Atlantic Ocean circulation.
Many uncertainties remain about the impact beyond 2050, including the potentially larger loss of mass from Antarctica postulated in some studies. But it seems almost certain that continuing on a high greenhouse gas emission pathway will lead to even more profound effects on the ocean and the climate system. The world urgently needs to drastically reduce our emissions to get off the high emission pathway we are currently following.
As individuals, we can all take steps to reduce our carbon footprint and help combat Climate change. We can choose to use public transportation, walk or bike instead of driving, eat a plant-based diet, conserve energy at home, and Support policies that promote renewable energy and sustainable practices. It’s important that we all do our part to ensure a sustainable future for ourselves and future generations.
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- Petition: Keep Pollution Out of the Ocean
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