An abrupt shutdown of Atlantic Ocean currents that could put large parts of Europe in a deep freeze is looking a bit more likely and closer than before as a new complex computer simulation finds a “cliff-like” tipping point looming in the future. A long-worried nightmare scenario, triggered by Greenland’s ice sheet melting from global warming, still is at least decades away if not longer, but maybe not the centuries that it once seemed, a new study in Friday’s Science Advances finds. The study, the first to use complex simulations and include multiple factors, uses a key measurement to track the strength of vital overall ocean circulation, which is slowing.

A collapse of the current—called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or AMOC—would change weather worldwide because it means a shutdown of one of key the climate and ocean forces of the planet. It would plunge northwestern European temperatures by 9 to 27 degrees (5 to 15 degrees Celsius) over the decades, extend Arctic ice much farther south, turn up the heat even more in the Southern Hemisphere, change global rainfall patterns and disrupt the Amazon, the study said. Other scientists said it would be a catastrophe that could cause worldwide food and water shortages.

“We are moving closer (to the collapse), but we’re not sure how much closer,” said study lead author Rene van Westen, a climate scientist and oceanographer at Utrecht University in the Netherlands. “We are heading towards a tipping point.” When this global weather calamity—grossly fictionalized in the movie “The Day After Tomorrow”—may happen is “the million-dollar question, which we unfortunately can’t answer at the moment,” van Westen said. He said it’s likely a century away but still could happen in his lifetime. He just turned 30.

University of Exeter climate scientist Tim Lenton, also not part of the research, said the new study makes him more concerned about a collapse. An AMOC collapse would cause so many ripples throughout the world’s climate that are “so abrupt and severe that they would be near impossible to adapt to in some locations,” Lenton said.

The AMOC is part of an intricate global conveyor belt of ocean currents that move different levels of salt and warm water around the globe at different depths in patterns that helps regulate Earth’s temperature, absorbs carbon dioxide and fuels the water cycle, according to NASA. When the AMOC shuts down, there’s less heat exchanged across the globe and “it really impacts Europe quite severely,” van Westen said.

For thousands of years, Earth’s oceans have relied on a circulation system that runs like a conveyor belt. It’s still going but slowing. The engine of this conveyor belt is off the coast of Greenland, where, as more ice melts from climate change, more freshwater flows into the North Atlantic and slows everything down, van Westen said. In the current system, cold deeper fresher water heads south past both Americas and then east past Africa.

The world should pay attention to potential AMOC collapse, said Joel Hirschi, division leader at the United Kingdom’s National Oceanography Centre. But there’s a bigger global priority, he said. “To me, the rapidly increasing temperatures we have been witnessing in recent years and associated temperature extremes are of more immediate concern than the AMOC shutting down,” Hirschi said, highlighting the need for urgent action on climate change mitigation’s.

As the threat of the Atlantic Ocean current shutdown looms closer, it is crucial for governments, organizations, and individuals to work together to combat climate change and prevent catastrophic consequences. The time for action is now before it’s too late.

Earth

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