Scientists are reporting a huge disruption of ocean currents in the North Atlantic which could chill Britain and northern Europe while global warming heats up the rest of the world. It might even, they fear, cause the stable climate that has nurtured human civilisation over thousands of years suddenly to "flip" into a new and unknown state.
The discovery - to be examined at a special international scientific conference in Norway next week - has increased concern among scientists that global warming will not be gradual, but may produce surprises with catastrophic consequences.
The concern centres on the failure - for an unprecedented third year in a row - of one of the vital natural pumps that propels the circulation of the world's ocean currents.
The so-called Odden Feature in the Greenland Sea governs one of only four places in the world where water is sucked down from the surface to the seabed. This feeds a vast, deep current - containing 20 times as much water as all the world's rivers put together - which links all the oceans and helps to regulate their circulation.
The feature is a tongue of ice (odden is Norwegian for tongue) which used to form regularly off Greenland each January. As the ice formed, the water left behind grew more salty and sank to the ocean floor. But Peter Wadhams, co-ordinator of a European Commission research programme on the Feature, said yesterday that it had failed to appear for an unprecedented three years in succession.
"That part of the ocean pump has stopped," he said. "Everyone believes it is clearly going to affect the Gulf Stream."
The Gulf Stream provides Britain with as much heat as the sun in winter and is the reason why, though we are on the same latitude as Labrador, our climate is far warmer. Dr Wadhams, who blames global warming for the disappearance, says the likely weakening of the Gulf Stream would make British winters colder even as the world heats up. "We would look back on this winter as a pleasant one," he says.
He adds that there is an even more ominous possibility - that the changes in the current of the North Atlantic could lead to a devastating flip in the climate, unknown in the last 10,000 years.
See also page 5Reuse content