By Dan Kennedy • The press, politics, technology, culture and other passions

A new ice age?

Nearly seven years ago the Atlantic Monthly published a terrifying cover story by the scientist William H. Calvin titled “The Great Climate Flip-Flop.”

Calvin’s thesis, simply put, was that global warming could disrupt the northward flow of the Gulf Stream and thus, paradoxically, kick off a new ice age in Northern Europe — which is, after all, at approximately the same latitude as Labrador.

Now a new scientific study, reported in the journal Nature, finds that it may already be happening, according to this New York Times story.

Here’s an excerpt from the Nature press release:

Failures of the Atlantic Ocean’s circulation system are thought to have been responsible for abrupt and extreme climate changes during the ice age that lasted from 110,000 to 23,000 years ago. More recently, a fictional shutdown of the Gulf Stream inspired the 2004 Hollywood blockbuster The Day after Tomorrow.

The climate shifts depicted in the movie, in which New York is engulfed by an instant ice age, are mere fancy. But scientists are worried about the real changes measured in the North Atlantic. Both salinity and water density, which influence the transport of warm waters, have previously been found to be decreasing.

Global warming is often thought to be a gradual process. But, as Calvin noted in the Atlantic, the effects of it could come in catastrophic waves, as tipping points are reached and then breached. This isn’t alarmism — it’s realism.

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  1. mike_b1

    The inference that “global warming” means “warmer temperatures” is oversimplistic. Scientists know this (and politicians and laypersons generally don’t). All sorts of other wild-ass stuff (technical term) occurs, too, including (yes) global freezing.Most reporting I’ve seen has missed two major aspects. One is the paradox of the Greenhouse Effect. The Greenhouse Effect occurs when the ozone layer gets so dense that certain gases can’t escape, creating warmer temperatures (akin to a hothouse). This is opposite of the effect caused by ozone-depleting chemicals like CFCs and HCFCs, which bore holes in the ozone layer, thus letting those gases escape (and “maintaining” the Earth’s climate) but exposing life to more intense damage from the sun’s rays. The second is the effect of natually occuring events (volcanos are a major one) on the upper atmosphere. The 1991 eruption of Mt. Pinatubo in a few days in the Phillipines spewed more ODCs than all the people on Earth could generate in years. And it changed the climate of much of the Earth for a good 12 to 18 months. In Chicago, for example, there were exactly 10 sunny days the next year, and the city was hit with the worst winter it had ever seen, followed by one of its hottest summers.

  2. The Emerson Avenger

    An old ice age? Sorry but I just couldn’t resist that one. . . 😉

  3. Ben Compson

    Mike, above, has no idea what he’s talking about. The greenhouse effect has very little to do with the ozone layer–it’s not ozone that traps heat in the atmosphere, but gases such as (primarily) carbon dioxide.

  4. mike_b1

    Any atmospheric trace gases that warms the earth is considered a greenhouse gas. Ozone (O3) aka troposphere ozone (the lower atmosphere) is one. Ozone raises air temps through absorption of UV sunlight. And according to several sources about 97% of ozone in the atmosphere is localized in the stratosphere (15 to 55 km above the Earth’s surface).Most natural greenhouse gas comes from water vapor. And while CO2 is next in quantity, nitrous oxide and methane are much more potent greenhouse gases on a molecular level than CO2.So, with greenhouse gas buildup you get global warming, radical temperature swings, etc. But in order for those gases to escape, you get ozone layer depletion, which means holes and skin cancer and all those goodies.That’s why it’s a paradox.

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