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Deep ocean currents around Antarctica headed for collapse, study finds

  • Deep ocean currents around Antarctica headed for collapse, study finds
  • Antarctic circulation could slow by more than 40 per cent over the next three decades, with significant implications for oceans and the climate.

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The deep ocean circulation that forms around Antarctica could be headed for collapse, say scientists.

Such a decline would stagnate the bottom of the oceans and affect climate and marine ecosystems for centuries to come.

The results are detailed in a new study coordinated by Scientia Professor Matthew England, Deputy Director of the ARC Centre for Excellence in Antarctic Science (ACEAS) at UNSW Sydney. The work, published in Nature, includes lead author Dr Qian Li – formerly from UNSW and now at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) – as well as co-authors from the Australian National University (ANU) and CSIRO.

Cold water that sinks near Antarctica drives the deepest flow of the overturning circulation – a network of currents that spans the world’s oceans. The overturning carries heat, carbon, oxygen and nutrients around the globe. This influences climate, sea level and the productivity of marine ecosystems. 

“Our modelling shows that if global carbon emissions continue at the current rate, then the Antarctic overturning will slow by more than 40 per cent in the next 30 years – and on a trajectory that looks headed towards collapse,” says Prof England. 

Modelling the deep ocean

About 250 trillion tonnes of cold, salty, oxygen-rich water sinks near Antarctica each year. This water then spreads northwards and carries oxygen into the deep Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. 

“If the oceans had lungs, this would be one of them,” Prof England says.

The international team of scientists modelled the amount of Antarctic deep water produced under the IPCC ‘high emissions scenario’, until 2050.  

The model captures detail of ocean processes that previous models haven’t been able to, including how predictions for meltwater from ice might influence the circulation.  

This deep ocean current has remained in a relatively stable state for thousands of years, but with increasing greenhouse gas emissions, Antarctic overturning is predicted to slow down significantly over the next few decades.

Impacts of reduced Antarctic overturning

With a collapse of this deep ocean current, the oceans below 4000 metres would stagnate.

“This would trap nutrients in the deep ocean, reducing the nutrients available to support marine life near the ocean surface,” says Prof England. 

Co-author Dr Steve Rintoul of CSIRO and the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership says the model simulations show a slowing of the overturning, which then leads to rapid warming of the deep ocean. 

Direct measurements confirm that warming of the deep ocean is indeed already underway,” says Dr Rintoul.

The study found melting ice around Antarctica makes the nearby ocean waters less dense, which slows the Antarctic overturning circulation. The melt of the Antarctic and Greenland ice sheets is expected to continue to accelerate as the planet warms. 

“Our study shows that the melting of the ice sheets has a dramatic impact on the overturning circulation that regulates Earth’s climate,” says Dr Adele Morrison, also from ACEAS and the ANU Research School of Earth Sciences.

“We are talking about the possible long-term extinction of an iconic water mass,” says Prof England.

“Such profound changes to the ocean’s overturning of heat, freshwater, oxygen, carbon and nutrients will have a significant adverse impact on the oceans for centuries to come.”

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