Polar Regions Communicate Shifts In Climate Through Fast Atmospheric "Text Messages" And Slower Oceanic "Postcards"

Floating sea ice caught in marine currents off the eastern coast of Canada. diak/Shutterstock

A fast atmospheric channel and a slower oceanic one are working as a two-part climate connection between the North Atlantic Ocean and Antarctica, according to a new study published today in Nature. Together, these events created rapid changes in the climate during the last ice age – and could do so again.

“The North Atlantic is sending messages to Antarctica on two different time scales,” said lead author and climate change specialist Christo Buizert in a statement emailed to IFLScience. “The atmospheric connection is like a text message that arrives right away, while the oceanic one is more like a postcard that takes its time getting there – in this case, 200 years, which makes the postal service look pretty good by comparison.”

Applying this same theory means we could see similar “abrupt” changes in our climate that could be further exacerbated by climate change.

The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is a system of ocean currents that act as a conveyer belt to move water and air, thus creating weather systems and redistributing heat on our planet. Earlier this year, a team of researchers found evidence suggesting that the AMOC is weakening, which could alter the intensification of monsoons, change wind patterns, and lessen the ocean’s ability to take up carbon dioxide.

A volcanic ash layer in an Antarctic ice core. Volcanic markers like these were used in the new study to synchronize ice cores from across Antarctica. Heidi Roop/Oregon State University

To study this “communication system”, an international team of scientists examined ice core samples from five different locations in Antarctica, dating them by looking at layers of volcanic ash and measuring changes in prehistoric temperature by analyzing the ratio of water isotopes. By matching them against data from Greenland’s ice core samples, they found that abrupt weather events happened on about 25 separate occasions dating back as far as 100,000 years ago.

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