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Will global warming make European winters colder?

General Interest
Will global warming make European winters colder?

RAPID: The NERC directed programme for rapid climate change research

Information for RAPID Stakeholders

The Atlantic Conveyor
(About the Gulf Stream,
the THC and the MOC)

Monitoring the Atlantic Conveyor

Luckily the new ice age from 'The Day After Tomorrow', is fiction, not future. But strange as it seems, global warming might bring colder winters to the UK and parts of North-West Europe. And if it happens, the change could take place over only a decade or so.

Ten years is not long. Certainly not long enough for people, animals and plants to adapt easily if at all. This is why even a small possibility of rapid climate change deserves to be taken seriously. 30%, 10% even a 1% risk of changing to colder winters over only ten years is something we'd want to know about.

Rapid cooling? How?

Wouldn't a warmer Earth mean vineyards in Scotland and Mediterranean beach holidays on the UK South Coast? Rising sea levels, floods, heat-waves, hose-pipe bans and malaria - won't these be the main results of our big gamble with the Earth's climate?

Certainly these are all risks. But they are not the only possible scenario. There is an alternative future of frostier winters, later springs and earlier autumns. This is what we might have to face if global warming shuts down the Atlantic heat conveyor - known to oceanographers and climate scientists as the Atlantic thermohaline circulation or THC, and to the rest of us somewhat inaccurately as the Gulf Stream.

The ocean is a moderating influence on climate in Western Europe. Warm water from the Caribbean and Gulf of Mexico flows north and east across the Atlantic. Heat from the tropics is released to the atmosphere and makes our climate warmer and wetter than expected from the latitude we're at. Were this flow to stop our winters would become like those at similar latitudes on the eastern shores of the Pacific. IPCC projections for future changes to the THC suggest that the Atlantic overturning will slow down, but not stop.

Rapid cooling has happened before. Possibly more than once since the last ice age. And paradoxically at least one of these events was a direct result of the Earth becoming warmer.

So could it happen again? How likely is it? How would it happen? How soon could we expect the change to begin? If it starts, how could we detect it? When and how did it happen in the past? Is the situation now sufficiently similar to then? These are the questions the RAPID science programme is working to answer.


North Atlantic sea surface temperature (SST) from the OCCAM model. MORE

Monitoring the Atlantic MOC Movie options

Frostfair on the Thames during the Little Ice Age. MORE

Air temperature from a HADCM3 model experiment. MORE

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Maintained by Val Byfield     Last modified: May 31 2013 08:46