Brussels, 16 Feb 2004
Researchers from the UK and the United States set sail on 12 February to deploy scientific instruments across the Atlantic Ocean in the hope of discovering whether Europe is set to enter a new ice age.
The network of instruments will stretch from the Bahamas to the Canary Islands, and will measure the temperature, salinity and speed of oceanic currents. The work is part of a research programme called Rapid Climate Change, funded by the UK natural environment research council and the US national science foundation.
The researchers themselves are from the Southampton oceanography centre (SOC) and the University of Miami. SOC's Dr Stuart Cunningham said: 'These specially developed instruments will be attached to wires up to 5,000 metres long. The wires are anchored to the seabed and buoys at the top hold straight just under the surface.
'Some instruments will motor up and down the wires every two days, taking measurements, for the next four years. We're taking measurements at 22 moorings on the continental slope off Africa, either side of the mid Atlantic ridge, and on the continental slope off the USA,' he added.
The measurements should help scientists to discover if any changes are occurring to the currents circulating in the Atlantic. Currents such as the Gulf Stream and the North Atlantic Drift drive warm water from the Gulf of Mexico towards the west coast of Europe. In the seas around the Arctic, these currents cool, sink and return south - known as the Atlantic overturning circulation.
It is estimated that by transporting heat equivalent to the power generated by one million nuclear power stations, such currents raise the atmospheric temperature in Europe by some five to ten degrees Celsius. To put it another way, without such currents, Europe would be as cold as those parts of Canada at the same latitude.
Dr Cunningham added: 'We know that in the past, disruptions to this system of currents have coincided with rapid transitions in and out of ice ages. Now, as the climate warms, more ice is melting at the North Pole. This extra cold fresh water could halt the overturning circulation, stopping all this extra heat reaching Northern Europe. There is speculation that this could quickly plunge us into a mini ice age.'
The new measurements could forewarn scientists if any such change is about to happen, but even if such hypotheses are totally without foundation, the lack of data on these currents proves that the research is needed. 'This pilot scheme will monitor variations in the circulation. It might show the circulation is slowing down. It might be speeding up. We don't know,' concluded Dr Cunningham.
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