UCL Department of Geography


How unstable is the pattern of ocean circulation?

1 October 2021

David Thornalley advises caution over long-term trends

Ocean Circulation

Following the publication in February of research co-authored by UCL Geography’s Dr David Thornallay, highlighting the weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), he was invited by both The Guardian and the Daily Mail online in early August to comment on further evidence published by Nature Climate Change.

The research, by Niklas Boers, examines datasets of temperature and salinity going back 150 years, showing that global heating is not just changing the Circulation’s flow pattern, but also increasing the instability of its currents. During the last century, the AMOC may thus have evolved from relatively stable conditions to a point close to a critical transition.

In David’s view, “These signs of decreasing stability are concerning. But we still don’t know if a collapse will occur, or how close we might be to it.” (The Guardian online, 5th August).

Elaborating in the Daily Mail online:

'The study might be showing increasing instability in a feature of ocean circulation (which is a concern in itself), but it might not be AMOC.

Scientists should be cautious about the quality of the observational data from the early part of the record, as direct ocean measurements were sparse.

This could mean the variability in the first part of the record is not accurately captured, which could alter the assessment of long-term trends in variability and stability.