Monday, 20 December 2010

The Gulf Stream: does the Government know it has stopped?

Is there a fundamental shift taking place in our winter climate in northern Europe, and Britain in particular? What does the Government know that it is not quite ready to tell us lesser mortals?

British Transport Secretary, Philip Hammond, has been talking in the Commons today about how the transport network has been struggling in the freezing temperatures and heavy snow of the last few weeks. As footage repeated over and over by the media shows, with huge numbers of people seeking to travel in the days leading up to Christmas, nearly every form of transport is under strain. Hammond insists that, with temperatures well below freezing for days on end and a full 5C lower than normal for this time of year, many services have struggled but just about coped. Yet, crucially, he pondered if this cost-cutting Government should now invest in the equipment necessary to counter the impact of regularly severe winter weather as he felt it right to question" if there is a step change happening to our winters." The Chief Scientist is to be asked to comment.

Slipped as an aside into a parliamentary announcement on transport, this is on the one hand a startling statement by a Minister of the mainstream parties, but equally not news to those who have been warning about the consequences of climate change for many years. As world temperatures increase thanks to man-made greenhouse gas emissions - and this year has, in spite of the last few days, been the warmest in recent history - global warming is not just about constant heating up. It is also about disruption to and destruction of all sorts of local or regional micro-climates.

North-western Europe has benefited for thousands of years from the warming effect of the Gulf Stream, a channel of warm water known as the conveyor (and above it the warm air of the Jet Stream) from the Mexican Gulf and Caribbean that flows across the Atlantic to bring mild weather all year round to the European seaboard. Britain and Ireland especially benefit, greatly assisting our agriculture and reducing our energy costs. Glasgow, for example, is on the same latitude as the Russian capital Moscow, but has enjoyed a much warmer climate. As far up the western Scottish coast as places like Inverary, parallel to icy cities like Estonian Riga, the temperate climate can be seen in the flora and fauna, with even (imported) palm trees thriving.

But for years, environmentalists and greens have been warning that global temperature increases could bring the Stream shuddering to a halt. Indeed, in 2003, even the Pentagon postulated the possibility of a shutdown of the conveyor by 2010. The theory holds that, as melting ice from Greenland and the Arctic flows south into the Atlantic, this disrupts the flow of warm weather from the Gulf. The inflow of cold water onto warm increases storms and begins to slow and  eventually switch off the Gulf Stream permanently. This in turn leads to what Mr Hammond so matter-of-factly mentioned this afternoon in between the latest on flights from Heathrow and lack of de-icer at Brussels airport - substantially lower temperatures in Britain andn the rest of north-western Europe, ironically as the rest of the world warms. Especially severe winters have been predicted as a result.

Hammond made no mention of the cause of this possible step change, so why has he postulated it at all now? We have had two bad winters in a row, but as any climatologist will tell you, that is still weather, not climate. The Minister was silent, but there is very worrying evidence that the Gulf Stream has in fact stopped reaching north European shores in recent months.

Some scientists, such as Dr. Gianluigi Zangari of the National Institute of Nuclear Physics in Italy, who has been part of a team monitoring the Gulf Stream for the last decade, have concluded that on 12 June this year, it effectively stopped. It no longer reaches as far as Ireland. Since the late summer and early autumn, he and others have been warning of an early and severe winter in north-western Europe, and this now seems borne out by events. It may be too early to be certain that is has ceased permanently, but it has changed enough to have a very significant impact on people's lives - including ending many of them through fuel poverty, hypothermia and related effects.

Perhaps Mr Hammond and his colleagues already know this and are trying to soften us up for the bad news. More likely, it may be that they do not see the significance of all this, but in their ignorant nonchalance, our political masters betray the future. We need to act now, not in another decade or two, to stop climate disruption escalating exponentially. And that will mean some significant changes to how we live.
The Big Chill - get used to it?

As just one example, yes, it is a shame to see tens of thousands of people crammed into airport terminals, sleeping on the floor and wondering if they will make it home for Christmas. But on a normal day at Heathrow Airport, an aeroplane arrives or takes off every forty seconds: and that is just one airport of thousands round the world. Just how realistic is it to think that we can continue like this? How sustainable does anyone seriously think the level of international travel, global trade and cheap flights really is? Anyone with any knowledge of carbon fuels will tell you we are now passing Peak Oil production - we consume almost forty times more oil each year than we discover and so reserves are depleting rapidly.

We need to develop new ways of communicating - the technology is there, but it is seen as complementing travel rather than replacing it - and begin to adjust our expectations. "Local" needs to be the future - for work, for production and distribution, for leisure and relaxation. It does not mean an end to international trade and travel completely, but our desires and the possibilities have to become far more realistic and sustainable, for all our sakes.

The only alternative is to carry on partying into chaos.

It would be better to have a Government that plans for and encourages that sort of step change rather than looks, so predictably, at new style snow ploughs and de-icing chemicals as the sticking plaster response to this paradigm shift in the way we need to live.


  1. To watch Global weather over Atlantic ocean,

  2. This all could be just the weather. It is not for certain that the Gulf stream has stopped or that changes seen are not normal variations. But we appear to be in a Landshiedt minimum to be followed possibly by a Maunder minimum. Now the Gulf stream may have stopped or changed. A perfect storm for global cooling for the next several decades. A continuing decline in global temperatures followed by longer and more severe winters, shorter summers in Europe and North America will attest to the truth of these events.