The Great Ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate Change

The Great Ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate Change

The Great Ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate Change

The Great Ocean Conveyor: Discovering the Trigger for Abrupt Climate Change


Wally Broecker is one of the world's leading authorities on abrupt global climate change. More than two decades ago, he discovered the link between ocean circulation and climate change, in particular how shutdowns of the Great Ocean Conveyor--the vast network of currents that circulate water, heat, and nutrients around the globe--triggered past ice ages. Today, he is among the researchers exploring how our planet's climate system can abruptly "flip-flop" from one state to another, and who are weighing the implications for the future. In The Great Ocean Conveyor, Broecker introduces readers to the science of abrupt climate change while providing a vivid, firsthand account of the field's history and development.

Could global warming cause the conveyor to shut down again, prompting another flip-flop in climate? What were the repercussions of past climate shifts? How do we know such shifts occurred? Broecker shows how Earth scientists study ancient ice cores and marine sediments to probe Earth's distant past, and how they blend scientific detective work with the latest technological advances to try to predict the future. He traces how the science has evolved over the years, from the blind alleys and wrong turns to the controversies and breathtaking discoveries. Broecker describes the men and women behind the science, and reveals how his own thinking about abrupt climate change has itself flip-flopped as new evidence has emerged.

Rich with personal stories and insights, The Great Ocean Conveyor opens a tantalizing window onto how Earth science is practiced.


As a result of the concern over the impacts of the ongoing buildup of fossil fuel co , studies of past climate have intensified. the hope is that information gained from these endeavors will help us better prepare for what is to come. Although our primary guide to the future will remain the simulations carried out in coupled atmosphere-ocean computer models, they have, as yet, proven incapable of replicating some important features of the paleo record. the reason is that they fail to properly represent powerful amplifiers and feedback mechanisms present in the real-world system; thus the interplay between these two ways of looking at the climate system has become an important aspect of our science.

I was fortunate to be the first one to propose that the Earth’s ocean-atmosphere system has more than one stable mode of operation. in a sense, it is quantized. I realized this when I came up with an explanation for the abrupt coolings recorded in Greenland ice. I proposed that they had to do with the disruptions of a key element of the ocean’s operation, namely, the meridional overturning circulation that takes place in the Atlantic Ocean. When northward-flowing warm upper-ocean water reaches the northern end of this ocean, it is cooled by frigid winter winds. This densifies it to the point where it sinks to the abyss and flows . . .

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