The dangers of collapsing ocean currents

“There needs to be urgent and co-ordinated international collaboration. Tragically for the biosphere, our global economy is still primarily based on fierce competition with rising nationalism, chaotic markets and unplanned growth.”

Barry Rodin, Orpington CLP, calls for urgent and co-ordinated action to tackle climate chaos.

Even with our ‘temperate’ climate we often experience dramatic daily changes in the weather, with conditions for particular seasons sharply contrasting from year to year. The recent exceptional mild weather, yet more evidence of global warming, could not be more different than the icy winter weather experienced in my boyhood in south east London back in the 1960s.

Bitter cold would set in just before Christmas. From Boxing Day until early March there would be a continuous cover of deep hard packed snow and ice. UK wide, there was much hardship, particularly in poorer and remote rural areas, with thousands of people cut off in their villages by snowdrifts up to seven metres deep.

Many lakes and rivers froze, including the Thames, and there were even blocks of ice at sea. Road and rail transport were severely disrupted throughout the country, with frequent power cuts because of the difficulty in moving coal. In those days coal, a major contributor to global warming, was the primary source of energy for the power stations.

The reasons for such extreme winters are complex, but a contributory factor was some distortion in the Pacific Ocean currents affecting the path of the upper atmospheric jet stream. This current of air helps to generate most of our winter storms, bringing milder winds across the warm Gulf Stream in the Atlantic. Kinks developed in the normal straightforward west to east atmospheric circulation allowing blocking anticyclones (sinking cold air systems) to form in the more northern latitudes over Scandinavia and Greenland.

During the ‘big freeze’ of 1963, winds were predominately from an easterly direction from frigid Siberia, instead of the ‘normal’ milder south westerlies. Winter storms, and attendant mild and rainy weather, stalled in the Atlantic Ocean or were deflected to the south of the UK.

Regarding the influence of ocean currents on our climate, scientists are increasingly concerned about the declining strength of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), which includes the Gulf Stream. This is a conveyor belt of warmer saline water from the Gulf of Mexico to the North Atlantic. It is responsible for tempering our winters. However, melting ice off the glaciers in Greenland, due to global warming, has resulted in a cascade of cold freshwater into the North Atlantic, which is contributing to the weakening of the current.

Freshwater reduces the salinity of the North Atlantic making the water less dense (and less heavy), so it cannot sink properly down to the Ocean depths causing a ‘traffic jam’, and slowing down the entire current.

According to the UK’s meteorological office, a resultant collapse of the AMOC would have a major influence on global weather systems, leading to sea-level rises in the Atlantic causing storm surges on the North American east coast; more powerful storms across the Northern Hemisphere; and severe disruption to the rain that billions of people rely upon to grow crops in Africa, South America and India. Our own climate would become more extreme with increasing frequency of big freezes in winter and heatwaves and droughts in summer.

Scientists do not expect the Gulf Stream to collapse completely in our lifetime, but even a steep slowdown would have significant impacts. It also illustrates how interconnected events in our natural environment are. The winter of 1963 is a striking example of how even a temporary but unusual weather event can greatly affect our well- being. The impact of more extreme and permanent climate changes, including unpredictability in the seasons, will be much greater. Therefore, there is the vital need to protect and cherish the biosphere that has evolved on this earth to support all life forms including human-kind.

We are in an existential global crisis where countries and corporates cannot deal with these challenges in isolation, however progressive some of their intentions. There needs to be urgent and co-ordinated international collaboration. Tragically for the biosphere, our global economy is still primarily based on fierce competition with rising nationalism, chaotic markets and unplanned growth; it is the survival of the fittest!

However, given current trends planet earth will not be fit for anyone or anything. Political will is needed to deliver a just global transition from a fossil fuel driven economy to a green-technology based one, where livelihoods are protected and new jobs, with training, are created using this green technology.


  • Barry Rodin is a member of Orpington CLP.
  • This article originally appeared in Labour Briefing (Co-operative) magazine and is reproduced with permission. Subscribe by sending a £20 cheque with your address to ‘Labour Briefing Co-operative Ltd’, 7 Malam Gardens, London, E14 OTR.
Gibraltar point, Sligo, Ireland. Labour Outlook archive.

One thought on “The dangers of collapsing ocean currents

  1. Some peer-reviewed references in recognised journals for these amateur meteorological claims would be very welcome !

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