‘Ice Age Blob’ of Warm Ocean Water Once Lived Between Ireland and Greenland

‘Ice Age Blob’ of Warm Ocean Water Once Lived Between Ireland and Greenland

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New research indicates that a warm blob of surface water managed to survive between Greenland and Ireland during the last ice age, sandwiched between two major ice sheets. If it is still there, we are all hoping we can find a way to make it come ashore for summer. We will all be trying to book our holidays along whatever coastline it hits.

Greenland experienced several abrupt and brutal climate changes during the last ice age. But even during the coldest periods a blob of warm surface water existed nearby. Credit:M. Sojtaric/CAGE/colourbox.com

Scientists who study such things in icy seas are rather fond of taking ice core samples. And recent ice core records show that Greenland went through 25 extreme and abrupt climate changes during the last ice age some 20,000 to 70,000 years ago. In less than 50 years the air temperatures over Greenland increased by 10 to 15 °C. However the warm periods were short; within a few centuries the frigid temperatures of the ice age returned. If we had that kind of climate change today, it would catastrophic.

The question that hooked scientists was: did these abrupt temperature changes also affect other icy areas? Well, ice core records from Antarctica also show climate changes in the same period, but they are more gradual, with less severe temperature swings. So why did the water between Ireland and Greenland have sporadic warm patches?

Yes, it was the work of the gulf stream. And even today in Ireland we enjoy a moderate climate thanks to the Gulf Stream. In the same way as it does now, back then the circulation of Atlantic Ocean transported heat from the southern and tropical Atlantic toward the North Atlantic. Long may the warm blobs live!

The water gets warmed up when it flows past Mexico, and rises to the surface. It then comes over to us, by which time it has cooled somewhat, before heading on to the Nordic seas. Here it gets cold and sinks. It becomes heavy and is pumped down to the bottom before returning to the Atlantic, where it continues as a deep current all the way to the Antarctic region. Then, repeat.

Without this pump, the north-south current system would slow down considerably. Changes in this circulation have a profound impact on the global climate system. And unfortunately, this system, and in particular the Gulf Stream, which helps to keep Ireland from freezing over in winter, is slowing down faster now than at any time in the past millennium. This suggests that major changes will take place to the ocean currents of the North Atlantic. Brrr! Go out and get your snow boots now people, before they become trendy and expensive!

During the coldest periods of the last ice age the Nordic seas were covered with a permanent layer of sea ice. The pump stopped transporting the heat northward. The heat accumulated in the southern oceans. But this heating effect managed to slowly travel all the way to Ireland and beyond. Little by little the warm Atlantic water penetrated into the Nordic sea underneath the ice cover. It melted the ice from below. Once the ice was gone, the pump started up again, bringing additional warm water into the Nordic seas. And we got a warmer period for 50 years. Which is what we are living in right now. So let’s enjoy it while it lasts: because sometime in the future, we may all be skiing to work.

If a warm blob should appear again, we hope it will surround Ireland as soon as it can. Warm blobs, you are always welcome here.

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