How Global Warming May Cause
the Next Ice Age...
on Friday, January 30, 2004 by www.CommonDreams.org
While global warming is being officially ignored by the political
arm of the Bush administration, and Al Gore's recent conference on the
topic during one of the coldest days of recent years provided joke fodder
for conservative talk show hosts, the citizens of Europe and the Pentagon
are taking a new look at the greatest danger such climate change could
produce for the northern hemisphere - a sudden shift into a new ice age.
What they're finding is not at all comforting.
In quick summary, if enough cold, fresh water coming from the
melting polar ice caps and the melting glaciers of Greenland flows into
the northern Atlantic, it will shut down the Gulf Stream, which keeps
Europe and northeastern North America warm. The worst-case scenario would
be a full-blown return of the last ice age - in a period as short as 2 to
3 years from its onset - and the mid-case scenario would be a period like
the "little ice age" of a few centuries ago that disrupted
worldwide weather patterns leading to extremely harsh winters, droughts,
worldwide desertification, crop failures, and wars around the world.
Here's how it works.
If you look at a globe, you'll see that the latitude of much of
Europe and Scandinavia is the same as that of Alaska and permafrost-locked
parts of northern Canada and central Siberia. Yet Europe has a climate
more similar to that of the United States than northern Canada or Siberia.
It turns out that our warmth is the result of ocean currents that
bring warm surface water up from the equator into northern regions that
would otherwise be so cold that even in summer they'd be covered with ice.
The current of greatest concern is often referred to as "The Great
Conveyor Belt," which includes what we call the Gulf Stream.
The Great Conveyor Belt, while shaped by the Coriolis effect of the
Earth's rotation, is mostly driven by the greater force created by
differences in water temperatures and salinity. The North Atlantic Ocean
is saltier and colder than the Pacific, the result of it being so much
smaller and locked into place by the Northern and Southern American
Hemispheres on the west and Europe and Africa on the east.
As a result, the warm water of the Great Conveyor Belt evaporates
out of the North Atlantic leaving behind saltier waters, and the cold
continental winds off the northern parts of North America cool the waters.
Salty, cool waters settle to the bottom of the sea, most at a point a few
hundred kilometers south of the southern tip of Greenland, producing a
whirlpool of falling water that's 5 to 10 miles across. While the
whirlpool rarely breaks the surface, during certain times of year it does
produce an indentation and current in the ocean that can tilt ships and be
seen from space (and may be what we see on the maps of ancient mariners).
This falling column of cold, salt-laden water pours itself to the
bottom of the Atlantic, where it forms an undersea river forty times
larger than all the rivers on land combined, flowing south down to and
around the southern tip of Africa, where it finally reaches the Pacific.
Amazingly, the water is so deep and so dense (because of its cold and
salinity) that it often doesn't surface in the Pacific for as much as a
thousand years after it first sank in the North Atlantic off the coast of
The out-flowing undersea river of cold, salty water makes the level
of the Atlantic slightly lower than that of the Pacific, drawing in a
strong surface current of warm, fresher water from the Pacific to replace
the outflow of the undersea river. This warmer, fresher water slides up
through the South Atlantic, loops around North America where it's known as
the Gulf Stream, and ends up off the coast of Europe. By the time it
arrives near Greenland, it's cooled off and evaporated enough water to
become cold and salty and sink to the ocean floor, providing a continuous
feed for that deep-sea river flowing to the Pacific.
These two flows - warm, fresher water in from the Pacific, which
then grows salty and cools and sinks to form an exiting deep sea river -
are known as the Great Conveyor Belt.
Amazingly, the Great Conveyor Belt is only thing between
comfortable summers and a permanent ice age for Europe and the eastern
coast of North America.
Much of this science was unknown as recently as twenty years ago.
Then an international group of scientists went to Greenland and used newly
developed drilling and sensing equipment to drill into some of the world's
most ancient accessible glaciers. Their instruments were so sensitive that
when they analyzed the ice core samples they brought up, they were able to
look at individual years of snow. The results were shocking.
Prior to the last decades, it was thought that the periods between
glaciations and warmer times in North America, Europe, and North Asia were
gradual. We knew from the fossil record that the Great Ice Age period
began a few million years ago, and during those years there were times
where for hundreds or thousands of years North America, Europe, and
Siberia were covered with thick sheets of ice year-round. In between these
icy times, there were periods when the glaciers thawed, bare land was
exposed, forests grew, and land animals (including early humans) moved
into these northern regions.
Most scientists figured the transition time from icy to warm was
gradual, lasting dozens to hundreds of years, and nobody was sure exactly
what had caused it. (Variations in solar radiation were suspected, as were
volcanic activity, along with early theories about the Great Conveyor
Belt, which, until recently, was a poorly understood phenomenon.)
Looking at the ice cores, however, scientists were shocked to
discover that the transitions from ice age-like weather to
contemporary-type weather usually took only two or three years. Something
was flipping the weather of the planet back and forth with a rapidity that
It turns out that the ice age versus temperate weather patterns
weren't part of a smooth and linear process, like a dimmer slider for an
overhead light bulb. They are part of a delicately balanced teeter-totter,
which can exist in one state or the other, but transits through the middle
stage almost overnight. They more resemble a light switch, which is off as
you gradually and slowly lift it, until it hits a mid-point threshold or
"breakover point" where suddenly the state is flipped from off
to on and the light comes on.
It appears that small (less that .1 percent) variations in solar
energy happen in roughly 1500-year cycles. This cycle, for example, is
what brought us the "Little Ice Age" that started around the
year 1400 and dramatically cooled North America and Europe (we're now in
the warming phase, recovering from that). When the ice in the Arctic Ocean
is frozen solid and locked up, and the glaciers on Greenland are
relatively stable, this variation warms and cools the Earth in a very
small way, but doesn't affect the operation of the Great Conveyor Belt
that brings moderating warm water into the North Atlantic.
In millennia past, however, before the Arctic totally froze and
locked up, and before some critical threshold amount of fresh water was
locked up in the Greenland and other glaciers, these 1500-year variations
in solar energy didn't just slightly warm up or cool down the weather for
the landmasses bracketing the North Atlantic. They flipped on and off
periods of total glaciation and periods of temperate weather.
And these changes came suddenly.
For early humans living in Europe 30,000 years ago - when the cave
paintings in France were produced - the weather would be pretty much like
it is today for well over a thousand years, giving people a chance to
build culture to the point where they could produce art and reach across
And then a particularly hard winter would hit.
The spring would come late, and summer would never seem to really
arrive, with the winter snows appearing as early as September. The next
winter would be brutally cold, and the next spring didn't happen at all,
with above-freezing temperatures only being reached for a few days during
August and the snow never completely melting. After that, the summer never
returned: for 1500 years the snow simply accumulated and accumulated,
deeper and deeper, as the continent came to be covered with glaciers and
humans either fled or died out. (Neanderthals, who dominated Europe until
the end of these cycles, appear to have been better adapted to cold
weather than Homo sapiens.)
What brought on this sudden "disappearance of summer"
period was that the warm-water currents of the Great Conveyor Belt had
shut down. Once the Gulf Stream was no longer flowing, it only took a year
or three for the last of the residual heat held in the North Atlantic
Ocean to dissipate into the air over Europe, and then there was no more
warmth to moderate the northern latitudes. When the summer stopped in the
north, the rains stopped around the equator: At the same time Europe was
plunged into an Ice Age, the Middle East and Africa were ravaged by
drought and wind-driven firestorms. .
If the Great Conveyor Belt, which includes the Gulf Stream, were to
stop flowing today, the result would be sudden and dramatic. Winter would
set in for the eastern half of North America and all of Europe and
Siberia, and never go away. Within three years, those regions would become
uninhabitable and nearly two billion humans would starve, freeze to death,
or have to relocate. Civilization as we know it probably couldn't
withstand the impact of such a crushing blow.
And, incredibly, the Great Conveyor Belt has hesitated a few times
in the past decade. As William H. Calvin points out in one of the best
books available on this topic ("A Brain For All Seasons: human
evolution & abrupt climate change"): ".the abrupt cooling in
the last warm period shows that a flip can occur in situations much like
the present one. What could possibly halt the salt-conveyor belt that
brings tropical heat so much farther north and limits the formation of ice
sheets? Oceanographers are busy studying present-day failures of annual
flushing, which give some perspective on the catastrophic failures of the
past. "In the Labrador Sea, flushing failed during the 1970s, was
strong again by 1990, and is now declining. In the Greenland Sea over the
1980s salt sinking declined by 80 percent. Obviously, local failures can
occur without catastrophe - it's a question of how often and how
widespread the failures are - but the present state of decline is not very
Most scientists involved in research on this topic agree that the
culprit is global warming, melting the icebergs on Greenland and the
Arctic icepack and thus flushing cold, fresh water down into the Greenland
Sea from the north. When a critical threshold is reached, the climate will
suddenly switch to an ice age that could last minimally 700 or so years,
and maximally over 100,000 years.
And when might that threshold be reached? Nobody knows - the action
of the Great Conveyor Belt in defining ice ages was discovered only in the
last decade. Preliminary computer models and scientists willing to
speculate suggest the switch could flip as early as next year, or it may
be generations from now. It may be wobbling right now, producing the
extremes of weather we've seen in the past few years.
What's almost certain is that if nothing is done about global
warming, it will happen sooner rather than later.
This article was adapted from the new, updated
edition of "The
Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight" by Thom Hartmann (thom at