Welcome to European Tribune. It's gone a bit quiet around here these days, but it's still going.

Collapsing of Labrador Current

by Gaianne Tue Jan 4th, 2011 at 02:20:54 PM EST

Remember this diary on climate change and Europe's recent cold winters?  Now from France Presse we have this article:  

Scientists have found evidence of a "drastic" shift since the 1970s in north Atlantic Ocean currents that usually influence weather in the northern hemisphere, Swiss researchers said on Tuesday.

The team of biochemists and oceanographers from Switzerland, Canada and the United States detected changes in deep sea Atlantic corals that indicated the declining influence of the cold northern Labrador Current.

They said in the US National Academy of Science journal PNAS that the change "since the early 1970s is largely unique in the context of the last approximately 1,800 years," and raised the prospect of a direct link with global warming.

The Labrador Current interacts with the warmer Gulf Stream from the south.

They in turn have a complex interaction with a climate pattern, the North Atlantic Oscillation, which has a dominant impact on weather in Europe and North America.

Scientists have pointed to a disruption or shifts in the oscillation as an explanation for moist or harsh winters in Europe, or severe summer droughts such as in Russia, in recent years.

"Now the southern current has taken over, it's really a drastic change," Schubert told AFP, pointing to the evidence of the shift towards warmer water in the northwest Atlantic.


Crudely put, the cold Labrador Current, which had been responsible for New England's traditional cold winters, is shutting down, allowing the Gulf stream to pool up in the northwest Atlantic instead of carrying warm water over to Europe where it "belongs".  This in turn is creating milder winters in New England and more extreme weather in Europe.  


It is not the Gulf Stream that is shutting down--it is the Labrador Current.  However, the effect is indeed what we have been noticing by looking out our windows, without the benefit of climate science.  

Thanks for dropping by!  

The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Tue Jan 4th, 2011 at 02:22:16 PM EST
Does the coral record studied go back only 1,800 years or are they saying that the last time they saw similar phenomena was 1,800 years ago?
by Jace on Tue Jan 4th, 2011 at 02:32:31 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The article says they have 1800 years of data based on 700-year-old coral reefs--so obviously the article is not telling us everything.  

The Fates are kind.
by Gaianne on Tue Jan 4th, 2011 at 02:52:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
I saw that. This can an important distinction since at least some of the data suggests relatively moderate conditions at that time.
by Jace on Tue Jan 4th, 2011 at 03:09:49 PM EST
[ Parent ]
The article says that there is a report by a research group on study of data based on 700 year old coral reefs, and that one member of the group says that the Labrador Current has been dominant for nearly 2,000 year ~ it never says that that remark by that member of the group is based on the results of this study alone.

According to that dating, the establishment of the Labrador current would be around the time of the zenith of the Roman Empire, and if that dating is correct, the early centuries of the establishment of the Labrador Current was the Age of Migrations.

I've been accused of being a Marxist, yet while Harpo's my favourite, it's Groucho I'm always quoting. Odd, that.

by BruceMcF (agila61 at netscape dot net) on Mon Jan 10th, 2011 at 05:15:48 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Article as released by EAWAG:

Eawag: Corals provide evidence of changes to oceanic currents through Global Warming

Examination of deep sea corals reveals that there have been drastic changes to oceanic currents in the western North Atlantic since the 1970s. The influence of the cold water Labrador Current, which is in periodic interchange with the warm Gulf Stream, has been decreasing continually since the 1970s. Occurring at the same time as Global Warming this phenomenon is unique in the past 2000 years. These results are reported by researchers from the University of Basel and Eawag in the current edition of the scientific journal «PNAS».

Article in journal (costs 10USD for access):

Sign In -- PNAS

Full Text (PDF) Physical Sciences - Geology - Biological Sciences - Environmental Sciences:
  • Owen A. Sherwood,
  • Moritz F. Lehmann,
  • Carsten J. Schubert,
  • David B. Scott,
  • and Matthew D. McCarthy
Nutrient regime shift in the western North Atlantic indicated by compound-specific δ15N of deep-sea gorgonian corals PNAS published ahead of print January 3, 2011,

Neither nutrients nor currents are any of my areas of expertise, so I will leave reading these others :)

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Tue Jan 4th, 2011 at 03:43:45 PM EST
I'd like to see a bit of analysis of this by other climate scientists.

The ones I've seen (at realclimate.org )tend to dismiss claims of a change in the Gulf Stream, because they don't see the evidence for it.

Recent discussion there is very focused on atmospheric circulation to explain the global warming/European winter cooling coupling, particularly with reference to the polar "hot spot" (the North Pole is warming much faster than the rest of the earth, there are probably boomerang effects going on).

I think it's a bit early to hang the European winters on the Labrador current.

It is rightly acknowledged that people of faith have no monopoly of virtue - Queen Elizabeth II

by eurogreen on Wed Jan 5th, 2011 at 01:55:08 PM EST
There is an important difference between explaining the European winters with the Labrador current and measuring a decreasing Labrador current. If - as  understand this report claims - the Labrador current can be measured directly and has been decreasing continually since the 1970s, then sooner or later this will translate into colder winters in Europe. Climate having lots of feedbacks, it might not be what we see now, but it will come so winter planning is in order.

Then again, I would like to see this report discussed by relevant experts to better understand how it measures the current and what the strengths and weaknesses are with that approach.

Sweden's finest (and perhaps only) collaborative, leftist e-newspaper Synapze.se

by A swedish kind of death on Wed Jan 5th, 2011 at 04:26:04 PM EST
[ Parent ]
the one project that actually measures oceanic currents directly (and continuously) is the RAPID MOC project. To my knowledge, there is not a similar project for the Labrador current.

The article describes a coral growth ring study, meaning a proxy study, which may imply that not a single current measurement was taken. Perhaps a few were taken (snapshots over the years). As I tried to explain in Frank's diary, taking snapshot measurements from ocean currents is a method riddled with statistical uncertainties and wouldn't give a proper picture.

by Nomad on Wed Jan 5th, 2011 at 05:26:32 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Wouldn't nutrient levels as revealed in coral growth rings be exactly the cumulative evidence needed to coalesce the snapshots?

It seems that dismissing snapshots and also cumulative but "secondhand" or "derivative" evidence is really just a way to dismiss all evidence.

Align culture with our nature. Ot else!

by ormondotvos (ormond.otvosnospamgmialcon) on Sat Jan 8th, 2011 at 09:33:18 PM EST
[ Parent ]
is not really an issue at this point.

A proxy study is able to show a certain side (1) of scientific "truth". There are caveats with proxy-studies.

Measuring oceanic currents show another side (2) of scientific "truth". There are caveats there too (see below).

Finally, one also could measure an oceanic current for a period of time and combine that data with a proxy study to see if the one study actually makes sense to the other (3). But particularly combining data from different sources has some serious caveats.

However. The question raised above by askod was whether the Labrador current can be measured directly. My answer: It can, but recent studies show one should tread carefully how to do that.

A snapshot study of measuring oceanic currents (that is, run a transect with a boat every x years and take a measurement every y meters) should now be considered a highly unreliable method to say something about the actual truth (whatever that may be). That is the core take-away lesson from the RAPID study and hullabaloo about the MOC shutdown: oceanic currents are fickle and their dynamics are unreliably mapped by a few years of snapshot measurements.

Secondly, no one here, myself included, seems to know at this point if the study actually included oceanic current measurements - snapshot or otherwise - or combined data sets. I will give it a look if it has.

Yet if we know that a certain methodology (snapshot measurements) is insufficient to properly capture a side of scientific truth, coalescing the data would not be of any help to learn us something extra.

None of this invalidates the proxy-data (1) in any way.

by Nomad on Sun Jan 9th, 2011 at 09:58:35 AM EST
[ Parent ]
is here. Abstract reads:

Despite the importance of the nitrogen (N) cycle on marine productivity, little is known about variability in N sources and cycling in the ocean in relation to natural and anthropogenic climate change. Beyond the last few decades of scientific observation, knowledge depends largely on proxy records derived from nitrogen stable isotopes (δ15N) preserved in sediments and other bioarchives. Traditional bulk δ15N measurements, however, represent the combined influence of N source and subsequent trophic transfers, often confounding environmental interpretation. Recently, compound-specific analysis of individual amino acids (δ15N-AA) has been shown as a means to deconvolve trophic level versus N source effects on the δ15N variability of bulk organic matter. Here, we demonstrate the first use of δ15N-AA in a paleoceanographic study, through analysis of annually secreted growth rings preserved in the organic endoskeletons of deep-sea gorgonian corals. In the Northwest Atlantic off Nova Scotia, coral δ15N is correlated with increasing presence of subtropical versus subpolar slope waters over the twentieth century. By using the new δ15N-AA approach to control for variable trophic processing, we are able to interpret coral bulk δ15N values as a proxy for nitrate source and, hence, slope water source partitioning. We conclude that the persistence of the warm, nutrient-rich regime since the early 1970s is largely unique in the context of the last approximately 1,800 yr. This evidence suggests that nutrient variability in this region is coordinated with recent changes in global climate and underscores the broad potential of δ15N-AA for paleoceanographic studies of the marine N cycle.

by Nomad on Sun Jan 9th, 2011 at 10:52:36 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I think it's a bit early to hang the European winters on the Labrador current.

Well, I suppose depends on your purpose.  

If you want a complete description (model) of what is happening right now, it is indeed too early.  You will have to wait several decades, at which time it will be of historical interest only.  

On the other hand if you are trying to look ahead, and anticipate what will happen, by discerning what is likely, it is not too early at all.  I think we are just mystifying ourselves if we insist that it all about the North Atlantic Oscillation being disturbed.  Sure it is disturbed!--but what is the rest of the story?  Admittedly, by focusing the Labrador current I am simplifying, but I think this is a key piece, which is, moreover, easy to understand.  

Like most of us, I would like to have more information and more data, but I think the significant point of this article is that though the means are indirect it does establish a rough picture of what is happening that can be debated in detail but in the large leaves little doubt.  

Corals really do respond to nutrients in the water, and nutrients really can be associated with ocean currents, so that part is not open to doubt.  

I am no longer interested in debates about climate change per se.  I can look out my window and see the climate is changing, and anyone who has lived a few decades in one place can do the same.  

But I am very much interested in looking ahead to what is coming--what we can expect.  

The Fates are kind.

by Gaianne on Sun Jan 9th, 2011 at 03:55:07 AM EST
[ Parent ]
It's all of course inter-related but the key is understanding the North Atlantic Oscillation. Broadly speaking, it's pretty well established that a positive NAO results in a weak Labrador Current, a negative, the reverse.

We have data going back just over 100 years on the NAO,  but our understanding of it, much less our ability to predict it, is still not all that clear (this article is good recent reference on the NAO). To go back further one of course needs a proxy. To me this article essentially tries to provide just that.

by Jace on Sun Jan 9th, 2011 at 09:52:57 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Nice article on NAO.

Do you think it is already possible to correlate this proxy-study to the 100 years of NAO data, or would we need more data points at various locations?  

by Nomad on Mon Jan 10th, 2011 at 03:19:00 PM EST
[ Parent ]
Given the complexities of the system, I'd say this study is only a start.
by Jace on Tue Jan 11th, 2011 at 10:51:11 AM EST
[ Parent ]
I saw another study that said the melt in the arctic would actually bring temps down in the North Atlantic for a period. So, the Labrador current is reacting to lower temps rather than higher temps?
by Upstate NY on Sun Jan 9th, 2011 at 10:08:28 PM EST

Go to: [ European Tribune Homepage : Top of page : Top of comments ]