Global Thermohaline Circulation

Global thermohaline circulation is the movement caused by differences in the temperature and salinity content of the water. Because cold, salt-laden water is heavier than warm water, it sinks to the bottom of oceans. To replace it, warmer water fills in, and as it subsequently cools, the rotation is repeated. This constant movement of water has often been referred to as a giant global conveyor belt or pump that slowly circulates water all over the world’s oceans.

Impact on Climate Change

Recent research on the thermohaline circulation system has shown a correlation between changes in this system and climate change. Presently, the age of bottom water in the equatorial Pacific is 1,600 years, and in the Atlantic it is 350 years. Glacial stages in the North Atlantic have been correlated with the presence of older cold bottom waters, approximately twice the age of the water today. This suggests that the thermohaline circulation system was only half as effective at recycling water during recent glacial stages, with less cold bottom water being produced during the glacial periods. These changes in production of cold bottom water may in turn be driven by changes in the North American ice sheet, perhaps itself driven by 23,000-year orbital (Milankovitch) cycles. It is thought that a growth in the ice sheet would cause the polar front to shift southward, decreasing the inflow of cold saline surface water into the system required for efficient thermohaline circulation. Several periods of glaciation in the past 14,500 years (known as the Dryas) are thought to have been caused by sudden, even catastrophic injections of glacial meltwater into the North Atlantic, which would decrease the salinity and hence density of the surface water. This in turn would prohibit the surface water from sinking to the deep ocean, inducing another glacial interval.

Example of Global Thermohaline Circulation

The warm Gulf Stream current is heated by the sun, "starting" in the Caribbean. It then flows north along the east coast of North America (mostly along the United States coastline) until it reaches sub-polar waters in the North Atlantic. Between Greenland and Norway, the cold Arctic winds cool the salt-laden water almost to the freezing point. Huge amounts of the now-cold, heavy salt water sink at this point to depths of around 3 to 4 miles (5 to 6.5 kilometers) and begin the next phase of the journey, travelling southwards through the Western Atlantic Basin to the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, and then into the Indian and Pacific Oceans. This trip takes many years. Off the coasts of Peru and California, for instance, upwellings often consist of ocean waters that sank to the depths centuries before.

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