The Thermohaline Circulation Only Stops for Extreme, Unrealistic ModelsJune 4, 2009
Gore gives a cartoon description of the ocean circulation system when he explains what has become known as the thermohaline circulation, or the meridional overturning circulation. In his simplistic scenario the surface ocean current that flows north in the Atlantic, bringing warmth to northern Europe will be halted by melting ice from Greenland, subsequently throwing Europe into an ice age.
Here is Gore’s explanation in his own words from the Inconvenient Truth movie:
The Earth’s climate is like a big engine for redistributing heat from the equator to the poles. And it does that by means of ocean currents and wind currents. They tell us, the scientists do, that the Earth’s climate is an non-linear system – just a fancy way they have of saying that the changes are not all just gradual, some of them come suddenly, in big jumps… And so, all those wind and ocean currents that have formed since the last ice age and have been relatively stable – they’re all up in the air – they change.
And one of the ones they’re most worried about, where they’ve spent a lot of time studying the problem is in the the North Atlantic where the gulf stream comes up and meets the cold winds coming off the Arctic over Greenland and that evaporates the heat out of the gulf stream and the steam is carried over to western Europe by the prevailing winds and the Earth’s rotation. But isn’t it interesting that the whole ocean current system is all linked together in this loop, they call it the ocean conveyor.
Up in the North Atlantic, after that heat is pulled out, what’s left behind is colder water, and saltier water, because the salt doesn’t go anywhere. And so, that makes it denser and heavier. And so that cold heavy dense water sinks at the rate of 5 billion gallons per second. And then that pulls that current back south.
At the end of the last ice age as the last glacier was receding from North America the ice melted and a giant pool of fresh water formed in North America, and the Great Lakes are the remnants of that huge lake. An ice dam on the eastern border formed, and one day it broke, and all that fresh water came rushing out, ripping open the St. Lawrence there, and it diluted the salty dense cold water, made it fresher and lighter so it stopped sinking, and that pump shut off.
And the heat transfer stopped. And Europe went back into an ice age for another 900 to 1000 years. And the change from conditions like we have here today to an ice age took place in perhaps as little as ten years time. So that’s a sudden jump. Now, of course, that’s not going to happen again because the glaciers of North America are not there… Is there any other big chunk of ice anywhere near there…? Oh, yeah [Gore says ominously, as the image pans to ice covered Greenland] we’ll come back to that one…
Later in the movie Gore tells us that Greenland is rapidly melting. The point being that it will provide a massive amount of fresh water that will stop the the thermohaline conveyor and “would raise sea level almost 20 feet if it ‘went,'” Gore tells us. He tells us about water seeping to the bottom of the ice sheets where it “lubricates where the ice meets the bedrock” causing the ice to slide toward the ocean.
Then he shows a series of pictures purporting to show the amount of melting in Greenland. Gore says…
“In 1992 they measured this amount of melting in Greenland … Ten years later this is what happened…And here’s the melting from 2005”
But what if…? What if there were a huge amount of low density fresh water dumped into the North Atlantic where the high density water is supposed to be sinking, just like the giant Canadian lake crashing through the barrier of ice the Gore told us about? This possibility is explored with computer models known as “hosing experiments.” In a hosing experiment a model that simulates the ocean and atmosphere circulation patterns is modified to artificially dump huge amounts of extra fresh water, as if from a giant hose, into some location in the ocean. It has been found that when enough fresh water is forced in, the circulation can be slowed, but rarely stopped.
How much fresh water do the hosing experiments use to nearly stop the thermohaline circulation? Typically (or here), they use one million cubic meters of fresh water per second, for 100 years!!! (One million cubic meters per second has its own unit name: One Sverdrup or 1 Sv). How does 1 Sv compare to, say, the rate of water flowing over Niagara Falls?
168,000 cubic meters of water fall over Niagara Falls every minute. That is about 2,800 cubic meters of water per second. So one Sverdrup of water is the same as about 350 Niagara Falls! (1,000,000 / 2,800 = 357). So, roughly speaking, if 350 Niagara Falls were dumped into the oceans around Greenland continuously for 100 years, then we could expect to see a significant slow down of the thermohaline circulation.
How does one Sverdrup compare to the freshwater discharge of ALL the rivers emptying into the arctic ocean? One Sverdrup of fresh water amounts to nearly 32,000 km3 of water per year (1 Sv x 106 m3 s-1/sv x (86,400 s/day) x (365 day/year) = 31,536 km3/year). The total fresh water discharge from all rivers into the arctic is only about 4,300 km3 per year. So, typical hosing experiments that nearly stop the overturning circulation add a water volume about 7 times the amount of water from all rivers discharing into the Arctic Ocean combined.
What about Greenland?
Gore ominously implies that the amount of fresh water needed to turn off the overturning circulation is just waiting to pour off of Greenland, due of course (drum roll), to CO2 induced anthropogenic global warming. His pictures of Greenland, shown above, imply that about half of Greenland’s 2.8 million cubic kilometers of ice have melted in the 13 years between 1992 and 2005. This is wildly misleading. Only a miniscule fraction of the area shown in Gore’s Greenland images actually melts every year. This is evidenced by mass balance studies, which show Greenland loses on the order of hundred cubic kilometers of ice every year, which translates into a measly 0.003 Sverdrups.
100 km3 /year= 1011 m3/year
(1011 m3/year) / (365 days/year) / (86,400 seconds/day)
= 3 x 103 m3/second
= 0.003 Sv
Put another way, one Sverdrup of fresh water is 86.4 km3/day. So the hosing experiments pouring in one Sverdrup put about as much fresh water into the ocean each day (86.4 km3) as Greenland provides in a year (100 km3).
But if Greenland actually started melting, by some extraordinary circumstance, 300 times faster, then it would yield 1 Sverdrup, or 1,000,000 cubic meters, of fresh water every second. What would happen after 100 years of melting at that rate? Well, that’s a trick question, because at a melting rate that gives 1 Sverdrup of freshwater Greenland would run out of ice in about 90 years. This is because Greenland has only 2.85 million cubic kilometers of ice, and one Sverdrup of water is the same as about 31,500 cubic kilometers of water per year. Ignoring the difference in density between ice and water, then 2.85 million cubic kilometers divided by 31,500 cubic kilometers per year gives 90 years.
You don’t hear as much about the threat of the collapse to the thermohaline circulation today as you did a few years ago. This is because it has become recognized as being a very far fetched possibility, even by most alarmists who want to maintain a shred of dignity. But I have a feeling we will not see this wildly exaggerated threat removed from new editions of Gore’s “An Inconvenient Truth” anytime soon.