While global warming is being officially ignored by the political arm of the Bush administration, and Al Gore's recent conference on the topic during one of the coldest days of recent years provided joke fodder for conservative talk show hosts, the citizens of Europe and the Pentagon are taking a new look at the greatest danger such climate change could produce for the northern hemisphere - a sudden shift into a new ice age. What they're finding is not at all comforting.
In quick summary, if enough cold, fresh water coming from the melting polar ice caps and the melting glaciers of Greenland flows into the northern Atlantic, it will shut down the Gulf Stream, which keeps Europe and northeastern North America warm. The worst-case scenario would be a full-blown return of the last ice age - in a period as short as 2 to 3 years from its onset - and the mid-case scenario would be a period like the "little ice age" of a few centuries ago that disrupted worldwide weather patterns leading to extremely harsh winters, droughts, worldwide desertification, crop failures, and wars around the world.
Here's how it works.
If you look at a globe, you'll see that the latitude of much of Europe and Scandinavia is the same as that of Alaska and permafrost-locked parts of northern Canada and central Siberia. Yet Europe has a climate more similar to that of the United States than northern Canada or Siberia. Why?
It turns out that our warmth is the result of ocean currents that bring warm surface water up from the equator into northern regions that would otherwise be so cold that even in summer they'd be covered with ice. The current of greatest concern is often referred to as "The Great Conveyor Belt," which includes what we call the Gulf Stream.
The Great Conveyor Belt, while shaped by the Coriolis effect of the Earth's rotation, is mostly driven by the greater force created by differences in water temperatures and salinity. The North Atlantic Ocean is saltier and colder than the Pacific, the result of it being so much smaller and locked into place by the Northern and Southern American Hemispheres on the west and Europe and Africa on the east.
As a result, the warm water of the Great Conveyor Belt evaporates out of the North Atlantic leaving behind saltier waters, and the cold continental winds off the northern parts of North America cool the waters. Salty, cool waters settle to the bottom of the sea, most at a point a few hundred kilometers south of the southern tip of Greenland, producing a whirlpool of falling water that's 5 to 10 miles across. While the whirlpool rarely breaks the surface, during certain times of year it does produce an indentation and current in the ocean that can tilt ships and be seen from space (and may be what we see on the maps of ancient mariners).
This falling column of cold, salt-laden water pours itself to the bottom of the Atlantic, where it forms an undersea river forty times larger than all the rivers on land combined, flowing south down to and around the southern tip of Africa, where it finally reaches the Pacific. Amazingly, the water is so deep and so dense (because of its cold and salinity) that it often doesn't surface in the Pacific for as much as a thousand years after it first sank in the North Atlantic off the coast of Greenland.
The out-flowing undersea river of cold, salty water makes the level of the Atlantic slightly lower than that of the Pacific, drawing in a strong surface current of warm, fresher water from the Pacific to replace the outflow of the undersea river. This warmer, fresher water slides up through the South Atlantic, loops around North America where it's known as the Gulf Stream, and ends up off the coast of Europe. By the time it arrives near Greenland, it's cooled off and evaporated enough water to become cold and salty and sink to the ocean floor, providing a continuous feed for that deep-sea river flowing to the Pacific.
These two flows - warm, fresher water in from the Pacific, which then grows salty and cools and sinks to form an exiting deep sea river - are known as the Great Conveyor Belt.
Amazingly, the Great Conveyor Belt is only thing between comfortable summers and a permanent ice age for Europe and the eastern coast of North America.
Much of this science was unknown as recently as twenty years ago. Then an international group of scientists went to Greenland and used newly developed drilling and sensing equipment to drill into some of the world's most ancient accessible glaciers. Their instruments were so sensitive that when they analyzed the ice core samples they brought up, they were able to look at individual years of snow. The results were shocking.
Prior to the last decades, it was thought that the periods between glaciations and warmer times in North America, Europe, and North Asia were gradual. We knew from the fossil record that the Great Ice Age period began a few million years ago, and during those years there were times where for hundreds or thousands of years North America, Europe, and Siberia were covered with thick sheets of ice year-round. In between these icy times, there were periods when the glaciers thawed, bare land was exposed, forests grew, and land animals (including early humans) moved into these northern regions.
Most scientists figured the transition time from icy to warm was gradual, lasting dozens to hundreds of years, and nobody was sure exactly what had caused it. (Variations in solar radiation were suspected, as were volcanic activity, along with early theories about the Great Conveyor Belt, which, until recently, was a poorly understood phenomenon.)
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Looking at the ice cores, however, scientists were shocked to discover that the transitions from ice age-like weather to contemporary-type weather usually took only two or three years. Something was flipping the weather of the planet back and forth with a rapidity that was startling.
It turns out that the ice age versus temperate weather patterns weren't part of a smooth and linear process, like a dimmer slider for an overhead light bulb. They are part of a delicately balanced teeter-totter, which can exist in one state or the other, but transits through the middle stage almost overnight. They more resemble a light switch, which is off as you gradually and slowly lift it, until it hits a mid-point threshold or "breakover point" where suddenly the state is flipped from off to on and the light comes on.
It appears that small (less that .1 percent) variations in solar energy happen in roughly 1500-year cycles. This cycle, for example, is what brought us the "Little Ice Age" that started around the year 1400 and dramatically cooled North America and Europe (we're now in the warming phase, recovering from that). When the ice in the Arctic Ocean is frozen solid and locked up, and the glaciers on Greenland are relatively stable, this variation warms and cools the Earth in a very small way, but doesn't affect the operation of the Great Conveyor Belt that brings moderating warm water into the North Atlantic.
In millennia past, however, before the Arctic totally froze and locked up, and before some critical threshold amount of fresh water was locked up in the Greenland and other glaciers, these 1500-year variations in solar energy didn't just slightly warm up or cool down the weather for the landmasses bracketing the North Atlantic. They flipped on and off periods of total glaciation and periods of temperate weather.
And these changes came suddenly.
For early humans living in Europe 30,000 years ago - when the cave paintings in France were produced - the weather would be pretty much like it is today for well over a thousand years, giving people a chance to build culture to the point where they could produce art and reach across large territories.
And then a particularly hard winter would hit.
The spring would come late, and summer would never seem to really arrive, with the winter snows appearing as early as September. The next winter would be brutally cold, and the next spring didn't happen at all, with above-freezing temperatures only being reached for a few days during August and the snow never completely melting. After that, the summer never returned: for 1500 years the snow simply accumulated and accumulated, deeper and deeper, as the continent came to be covered with glaciers and humans either fled or died out. (Neanderthals, who dominated Europe until the end of these cycles, appear to have been better adapted to cold weather than Homo sapiens.)
What brought on this sudden "disappearance of summer" period was that the warm-water currents of the Great Conveyor Belt had shut down. Once the Gulf Stream was no longer flowing, it only took a year or three for the last of the residual heat held in the North Atlantic Ocean to dissipate into the air over Europe, and then there was no more warmth to moderate the northern latitudes. When the summer stopped in the north, the rains stopped around the equator: At the same time Europe was plunged into an Ice Age, the Middle East and Africa were ravaged by drought and wind-driven firestorms. .
If the Great Conveyor Belt, which includes the Gulf Stream, were to stop flowing today, the result would be sudden and dramatic. Winter would set in for the eastern half of North America and all of Europe and Siberia, and never go away. Within three years, those regions would become uninhabitable and nearly two billion humans would starve, freeze to death, or have to relocate. Civilization as we know it probably couldn't withstand the impact of such a crushing blow.
And, incredibly, the Great Conveyor Belt has hesitated a few times in the past decade. As William H. Calvin points out in one of the best books available on this topic ("A Brain For All Seasons: human evolution & abrupt climate change"): ".the abrupt cooling in the last warm period shows that a flip can occur in situations much like the present one. What could possibly halt the salt-conveyor belt that brings tropical heat so much farther north and limits the formation of ice sheets? Oceanographers are busy studying present-day failures of annual flushing, which give some perspective on the catastrophic failures of the past. "In the Labrador Sea, flushing failed during the 1970s, was strong again by 1990, and is now declining. In the Greenland Sea over the 1980s salt sinking declined by 80 percent. Obviously, local failures can occur without catastrophe - it's a question of how often and how widespread the failures are - but the present state of decline is not very reassuring."
Most scientists involved in research on this topic agree that the culprit is global warming, melting the icebergs on Greenland and the Arctic icepack and thus flushing cold, fresh water down into the Greenland Sea from the north. When a critical threshold is reached, the climate will suddenly switch to an ice age that could last minimally 700 or so years, and maximally over 100,000 years.
And when might that threshold be reached? Nobody knows - the action of the Great Conveyor Belt in defining ice ages was discovered only in the last decade. Preliminary computer models and scientists willing to speculate suggest the switch could flip as early as next year, or it may be generations from now. It may be wobbling right now, producing the extremes of weather we've seen in the past few years.
What's almost certain is that if nothing is done about global warming, it will happen sooner rather than later.