Climate change resulting from human activities has caused a major ocean current to become more turbulent, according to a new study from NASA. The space agency, which also spends considerable time monitoring and studying our own planet, used satellite data spanning a dozen years to measure the Beaufort Gyre ocean current, finding that it is moving faster as a result of rapidly melting sea ice.
Put simply, the Beaufort Gyre is a circular ocean current that turns in a clockwise direction due to the effects of wind. This current keeps polar regions ‘in equilibrium,’ according to NASA, by collecting fresh water from things like melting glaciers and stores it near the ocean’s surface. As a result of this, the freshwater slows down the rate of sea ice melt and helps keep the planet’s climate regulated.
NASA scientists found that this current has been accumulating a vast amount of freshwater since the 1990s, however, as a consequence of increased sea ice melting. As the sea ice melts, the current is exposed to more winds that cause it to move faster, pulling more freshwater into its current. The freshwater is having trouble escaping the Arctic Ocean because the winds have kept the current ‘stuck’ turning in the same direction for more than two decades.
NASA says this is unusual — usually, the winds change direction every handful of years, causing the current to reverse directions and therefore release the freshwater that has accumulated. The study’s lead author Tom Armitage explained:
If the Beaufort Gyre were to release the excess freshwater into the Atlantic Ocean, it could potentially slow down its circulation. And that would have hemisphere-wide implications for the climate, especially in Western Europe.
The effects on the current may spread to impact the wildlife and food chain in the Arctic, according to NASA, as well as marine life. A change in wind directions may cause this large quantity of freshwater to essentially dump into the Atlantic Ocean quickly, slowing the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation as a result. This, as a consequence, would impact the communities that depend on the sea life and could have a big impact on the climate in Western Europe.