Brussels, 03 Mar 2004
This is not a joke. Europe appears to be getting hotter but – instead of raising fears of rising mercury – a trans-Atlantic research team will spend the next four years studying ocean currents to test the opposite hypothesis.
British scientists set sail earlier this month to begin work measuring changes to Europe's central heating system, the currents circulating in the Atlantic. Their work, onboard the Royal Research Ship 'Discovery', will test whether recent climatic events – such as Europe's 'big heat' last summer – could mark the beginning stages of the next ice age.
It sounds dramatic but past disruptions to the system of currents have coincided with rapid climatic transitions in and out of ice ages, explains Dr Stuart Cunningham of the Southampton Oceanography Centre (UK), which will carry out the research together with scientists from the University of Miami (US).
The ship is equipped with sensitive oceanographic instruments which – deployed between the Canary Islands and the Bahamas – will measure the temperature, salinity and speed of Atlantic currents. The work is part of a collaborative research programme called Rapid Climate Change (RCC), co-funded by the UK's Natural Environment Research Council (NERC) and the US National Science Foundation.
The instruments will be attached to 22 moored wires ranging in length up to 5km. Some specially developed devices will motor up and down these cables every two days collecting data and beaming it back to the researchers via satellite. "We're taking measurements… on the continental slope off Africa and either side of the mid-Atlantic ridge," says Cunningham.
The researchers want to know how disruptions to the currents affect the phenomenon known as 'Atlantic overturning circulation'. When warm surface water – driven northwards by winds from the Gulf of Mexico – reaches the Arctic, it cools down, sinks and then returns south.
As the fast-moving warm water passes by Europe, it gives off intense heat which raises atmospheric temperature in the region by 5 to 10°C. But, with evidence of climate change, 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," notes Cunningham, who will join his fellow scientists onboard Discovery in March.
"There is speculation [it] could quickly plunge us into a mini ice age," he adds. "This pilot scheme will monitor variations in the circulation: it might show the circulation is slowing down,… speeding up – we just don't know."
Much more could be learned about marine environments and the effects of climatic change, according to the European Commission (Headlines 9 Sept 2003). One EU-funded consortium of researchers, the Orion-Geostar3, is monitoring the ocean's depths using sophisticated satellite relays. Scientists and policy-makers have also been meeting to thrash out a future strategy for marine research infrastructures in Europe.
One of the main goals of this ad hoc Working Group on Marine Research Infrastructures is to identify the 'hot topics' in the field in order to improve the level of co-operation, such as that shown by the RCC scheme. Reporting last year, the working group listed several priority areas to be addressed, including better research vessels and mobile infrastructure, marine monitoring and observing systems, emerging technologies/infrastructures, and marine data centres.