Have you ever noticed that Europe is at the same latitude than northern United States and Canada?
But then… why is the climate in Spain much warmer than in Maine?
Ahaaa! that’s because of the Gulf Stream!
The Gulf Steam is a powerful current of warm water that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and carries warm water to Europe through the eastern United States.
The circulation is driven by differences in seawater density, caused by temperature and salinity.
But due to Global Warming ice sheets in Greenland as well as sea ice and glaciers are rapidly melting. The ice melting is injecting massive amounts of fresh water into the system which dilutes the salinity of the sea water, ultimately disturbing the circulation pattern.
Scientists fear the shutting down of the gulf stream could lead to devastating changes in Europe’s climate :
“If it switched off [the gulf stream], Europe could be plunged into a mini-Ice Age”.
And we are already noticing changes in the climate, not only in Europe, but worldwide.
This winter (08-09) it has snowed in many areas of Spain, and other parts of Europe where it rarely snows, and the temperatures have been record low.
Does this mean that the Gulf Stream is already shutting down?
And how much fresh water is needed to stop the circulation pattern?
Scientists are still trying to find answers for these and more questions, but we still don’t know if the rapid melting of the northern ice caps will irreversibly shut down the gulf stream, and if so, we can only imagine the catastrophic consequences.
But something that most scientists agree on is that we have little time left to act.
This is a great BBC documentary that explains this process in further detail “The Big Chill”, which I highly recommend (this is video 1/5, you’ll find the rest in youtube)