When director Roland Emmerich's disaster film "The Day After Tomorrow" came out in 2004, moviegoers were treated to a world where the Earth's climate has undergone drastic changes that resulted in a series of extreme weather conditions ravaging heavily populated cities.
By the time the climate events ended, the Earth was engulfed in global cooling and many people were left to live in a new ice age.
While Emmerich's film is widely considered a product of Hollywood fiction writers filled with scientific inaccuracies, a recent study conducted by a researcher in the United Kingdom suggests that such a catastrophic scenario is indeed a possibility if climate warming manages to cause ocean currents in the world to collapse.
Sybren Drijfhout, a professor at the University of Southampton, said that a collapse of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) could occur as a result of the continued warming of the Earth.
In his study, featured in the journal Scientific Reports, Drijfhout made use of the Max-Planck Institute's state-of-the-art climate model called ECHAM to predict possible climate scenarios.
He discovered that if global warming occurs simultaneously with the AMOC's collapse in a period of 20 years, the planet would begin to cool rather than to continue to warm. Global warming would continue thereafter as if the AMOC's collapse never occurred, but with the average temperature of the world being offset by 0.8 degrees Celsius.
"The planet earth recovers from the AMOC collapse in about 40 years when global warming continues at present-day rates, but near the eastern boundary of the North Atlantic (including the British Isles) it takes more than a century before temperature is back to normal," Drijfhout said.
The findings of the study show that the AMOC collapse's atmospheric cooling effect is linked to the flow of heat from the Earth's atmosphere into the ocean. This event was recently observed during the climate hiatus over the past 15 years.
Drijfhout explained that this heat flow is reversed when a cooling of the planet occurs as a result of a decrease in greenhouse gas emissions or volcanic eruptions. Instead of the flow moving from the atmosphere into the Earth's oceans, it moves from large bodies of water into the atmosphere.
He added that a similar energy flow reversal can also be observed in the atmosphere.
Drijfhout said that such unique energy flow fingerprints between internal ocean circulation processes and atmospheric radiative forcing can be viewed as a potential cause of a climate hiatus.
The researcher, however, noted that the findings shown in the climate study suggest that the recent period of moderate climate warming cannot be attributed to a singular cause.
He said that other climate events likely have caused this reduction in warming as well as the El Niño phenomenon and the increasing and shifting westerlies in the Southern Ocean.
Photo: Nate & Tilly Ritter | Flickr