The Gulf Stream: Long Term Effects
In 2006, fishermen off the coast of Rhode Island started noticing abnormally large numbers of tropical fish being caught in their nets. The Gulf Stream , on occasion, does bring several species of tropical fish off the coast of New England, but in this instance, tropical fish were being spotted in record numbers. Among the fish observed were juvenile orange filefish, snowy grouper and lookdowns. A local lobsterman even pulled up a large trigger fish in one of his traps. These are species that normally stick to the southern states, and typically do not venture much farther than the coast of Virginia and North Carolina.
Scientists concluded that the reason for these accidental species flooding the coast of Rhode Island was a change in the pattern of the Gulf Stream. The northeast turn that brings the Gulf Stream towards Europe had moved a little more north, bringing warmer water and consequently more tropical fish further up the coast.
Small changes like these, though harmless on the surface, cause scientists to worry about more catastrophic, long term affects.
And, unfortunately, observations made in the past several years have given scientists plenty of reasons to be concerned.
In 2005, the National Oceanography Centre in Southampton determined that there was reason to believe that Europe's central heating system, the Gulf Stream, was breaking down under the impact of global warming.
A consequence of the theory of global warming is that the polar ice caps will melt, and scientists postulated that this would have a dramatic affect on the Gulf Stream.
With global warming, extra freshwater from the melting ice caps and glaciers reduces the salinity of the Arctic waters, stopping it from sinking, and breaking the circuit of the Gulf Stream.
Scientists have always predicted that the melting of the ice caps could disrupt the Gulf Stream, but new research suggests this process is already in play. In fact, they have concluded that the strength of the Gulf Stream has weakened by 30 percent in just the past 12 years.
Furthermore, these studies point to a cooling of 1C (1.8F) over the next decade or two for Britain's climate, with an even deeper freeze predicted if the Gulf Stream system were to shut down completely.
Though most oceanographers think it is very unlikely that the Gulf Stream will stop altogether, if it did happen, it could reduce average temperatures by between 4C (7.2F) and 6C (10.8F) in as little as 20 years, far outweighing any increase in temperatures predicted across the globe as a result of global warming. Essentially, as the rest of the world heats up, Britain and the British Isles would get much colder.
Over the same period of time, the flow of warm water that branches off the Gulf Stream near the North Carolina coast and heads east towards Africa has increased significantly, contributing in the decline of warm waters being carried to Europe.
A project is currently underway to determine if these findings were an indication of a long term, progressing problem for the Gulf Stream, or simply a disruption that may change seasonally or annually. The currents of the Gulf Stream will be monitored continuously for a four year period to find the answer to this question.
It's remarkable how much of the global climate relies and is attributed to the Gulf Stream. Countries and entire continents all over the world are dependent on this Atlantic current for their mild temperatures, their plant and animal life, as well as their food source. The Gulf Stream makes species of fish that would otherwise be inaccessible to northern areas available and plentiful for commercial fishermen and recreational fishermen alike.
Here in North Carolina, the effects of the Gulf Stream on our environment can be seen every day, from the sea turtles that hoist themselves onto the beaches to give their eggs a running start towards their trek into the ocean, to the blue marlin and meat fish that are reeled in off the coast of the Outer Banks by enthusiastic sport fishermen from across the country. Even the local population relies on the Gulf Stream for the popular charter boat businesses that flourish when the big game fish are running. In addition, the small local fish houses reel in the day's catch for local seafood restaurants and markets to the delight of North Carolina visitors.
Not to mention North Carolina also has the unusual distinction of being one of the closest areas to the Gulf Stream's current, just an estimated 15 miles off the coast.
And as the currents change due to universal conditions, such as global warming, the attention of North Carolina residents and frequent visitors alike will be fixed upon the affects of a shift in the strength or path of this river in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean, hoping that precautionary measures will be taken to protect its' course, and the Gulf Stream will remain undisrupted.
In the meantime, however, the charter boats will continue to run every morning, and the big fish will always be around, simply lurking in the turquoise waters hugging the Carolina coast, and just waiting to be reeled in by a lucky Gulf Stream fisherman.