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Atlantic's Gulf Stream has huge influence on atmosphere

by Staff Writers
Paris (AFP) March 12, 2008
The conveyor belt of Atlantic warm water known as the Gulf Stream massively influences the lower layers of the atmosphere, a finding that could shed light on a poorly-understood aspect of global warming, scientists report.

The Gulf Stream flows from the western tropical Atlantic to the northeast, bathing coastal western Europe with warmth.

Without it, cities such as Paris and London would experience winters as fierce as in Quebec, Canada.

Japanese researchers, publishing on Thursday in the British weekly journal Nature, used data from a satellite called QuikSCAT to get images of wind and precipitation in the troposphere above the the Gulf Stream.

The troposphere, extending between eight and 16 kilometres (five to 10 miles) above the Earth's surface, is the lowest and densest part of Earth's atmosphere and also accounts for almost all of its water vapour and rainfall.

The images show that the Gulf Stream "affects the entire troposphere" above it, according to the new paper, headed by Shoshiro Minobe of Hokkaido University.

The most notable influence is a band of rain that tracks the warm surface water, starting east of Miami and spreading out and widening across the central Atlantic as the current heads northwards.

The study adds an important tool for understanding a complex aspect of global warming, the researchers hope.

One big fear is that a big inrush of cold, dense water into the northern Atlantic from melting glaciers in Greenland could act as a brake on the Gulf Stream's conveyor belt.

If so, it could send Western Europe back to the Ice Age -- a doomsday scenario that provided the setting for the 2004 Hollywood movie "The Day After Tomorrow".

Last year, the UN's Nobel-winning group of climate scientists, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) predicted that the Gulf Stream would "very likely" slow down this century, with projections suggesting a fall of around 25 percent in its flow.

But, it said, loss of warmth from the balmy Atlantic current would be compensated by higher air temperatures.

The authors of the new study say that their findings warn that any slowdown could well have a knockon effect in rainfall, wind and storm tracking, given the Gulf Stream's impact on the troposphere.

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