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The University of Southampton

£5 million study to research possible 5 degree C drop in temperature

Published: 14 January 2003

Southampton Oceanography Centre has been awarded nearly £5 million to research rapid climate change. Professor Jochem Marotzke will lead a six-year project recording changes taking place in the Atlantic. The research is funded by the Natural Environment Research Council as part of the RAPID Climate Change Programme.

There are concerns that an increase in global warming could have knock-on effects on the stability of the climate in the North Atlantic - paradoxically making the region much colder. In as little as 20 years the climate in northern Europe could be some 5 degrees Centigrade cooler.

Prof Marotzke said, "If UK temperatures dropped by five degrees, we would have a climate similar to that of Iceland."

He will set up a chain of moorings across the Atlantic that will monitor changes in strength and temperature of ocean currents.

Positioned at latitude 25 degrees north, off the coasts of Florida and Africa, monitors will give profiles from just below the sea surface to the ocean floor at 5,000 metres.

At present warm Atlantic water is pulled northwards towards the Arctic, releasing heat into the atmosphere ensuring that landmasses such as Europe are considerably warmer than countries at similar latitudes around the Pacific. Near the Arctic this colder, denser water sinks and makes the return journey south, close to the Atlantic seafloor. The current system is known as the Conveyor Belt.

Professor Marotzke is a modeller of international status. He continued: "My fear is that in a warmer world, rainfall would increase and this extra fresh water could disrupt deep-sea convection. Fresh water could act like a lid to inhibit the release of heat and reduce the amount of warm water transported northwards.

"Maybe even stopping the Conveyor Belt.

"The key question for us is: at what depth does the cold water return? This information will then be used in computer models to provide a series of different scenarios. Without observing changes over time we cannot judge the risk of climate change and where the point of no return might be."

Notes for editors

  1. Southampton Oceanography Centre is a joint venture between the University of Southampton and the Natural Environment Research Council. It is one of the world's largest institutions devoted to research, teaching and technology development in ocean and earth science.
  2. In addition to Professor Marotzke's award, Southampton Oceanography Centre scientists have also been awarded funding for research into other aspects of rapid climate change.
  3. Dr Sheldon Bacon will be looking at millennial thermohaline circulation variability.
  4. Professor Harry Bryden is extending the time series of Atlantic Meridional Overturning backwards in time using historical measurements.
  5. Peter Challenor will be assessing the probability of rapid climate change.
  6. Dr Simon Josey is looking at the role of air-sea forcing in causing rapid changes in the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation.
  7. Dr Neil Wells will be determining heat transfer and storage and their changes in the North Atlantic thermohaline circulation.
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