In recent years, the Gulf Stream has been a heavily researched topic, and the conclusions being drawn from this new information are unsettling. The cause for concern is justified because the ocean is closely tied to our life on land and small changes on a scale this size can have global consequences. While the headlines are painting a gloomy picture, let’s dive in and see if these claims hold any water.
The Gulf Stream is a major ocean current that moves warm water from the Gulf of Mexico and Caribbean along the eastern coast of the United States and ends off the coast of the United Kingdom. According to NOAA, the volume of water moved by this current is greater than all of the freshwater rivers in the world combined.
The Gulf Stream generally follows the same path, but changes in water parameters can shift the flow and disturb fragile ecosystems. In 2021, research showed the warm waters of the Gulf Stream pushed further north and interrupted the cool labrador current. This resulted in increased water temperatures and reduced forage for marine wildlife like the endangered right whale.
While the study shows how the Gulf Stream shifted, causing increased temperatures, it also shows that current ocean conditions in the region are not unprecedented and follow a cyclical pattern. Is the Gulf Stream Shifting? Yes, but it’s not unusual or a reason to panic.
Also in 2021, new research on the speed of the Gulf Stream was published. The results conclude that the current has slowed significantly over the last century and may approach the weakest flow in history. Projections based on their findings suggest that the Gulf Stream will continue to slow down, becoming increasingly unstable until hitting a point of no return around the year 2100.
If the above projections become reality, marine ecosystems across the Atlantic—and potentially the world—face catastrophic fallout. The majority of the commentary about the potential effects of the Gulf Stream disappearing has revolved around a sudden shift to a cooler climate in Europe. While the marine climate shift would be extreme, other research suggests that the Jet Stream is responsible for warm weather instead of the Gulf Stream.
While it appears that the Gulf Stream is slowing down, it won’t stop in the immediate future. The data is concerning, but it’s new. More research will be necessary to better understand what’s happening.