Ocean currents near Antarctica could slow by 40 percent, affecting climate, food chain - study

ANTARCTIC PENINSULA, ANTARCTICA - 2006/03/25: Glaciers by the sea on a cloudy day. (Photo by Jorge Fernández/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Photo credit: Getty Images

By Hamish Cardwell for RNZ

Deep ocean currents at Antarctica that circulate a crucial part of the food chain are set to significantly weaken, a new study shows.

The Australian research published in the journal Nature shows that unless significant cuts in emissions are made the currents could weaken by 40 percent in the next 30 years, and could be headed for collapse.

Cold water that sinks near Antarctica drives a deep flow of water around the globe.

It carries heat, carbon, oxygen and nutrients, and has been stable for thousands of years.

The new study predicts it is heading for a "dramatic" slowdown with consequences to be felt for centuries to come.

Report co-author Dr Steve Rintoul, from the Australian Antarctic Program Partnership, said it would block crucial food that support our fisheries.

"Nutrients exported from the southern ocean support about three quarters of global phytoplankton production, the base of the food chain."

It would cause water at the ocean bottom to stagnate, affecting marine ecosystems from the second half of the century.

The slowdown is being driven by meltwater from Antarctica, and is tipped to happen at double the rate of the northern hemisphere's North Atlantic Ocean circulation.

Simulations run for the study took a couple of years to run on the best supercomputer in Australia, totalling about 35 million computing hours.

Aotearoa Antarctic Research Centre director Professor Rob McKay said it was groundbreaking research.

He said the ocean absorbed a great deal of carbon from the atmosphere, acting as a brake on warming.

The study showed this would be disrupted, causing a feedback loop which increases temperatures creating yet more meltwater, McKay said.

"Whether or not the earth is capable of absorbing the carbon in the same way it has been is a fundamental question."

McKay said it would also drive even greater sea-level rise than was already predicted.

"If you get this amplifying effect ... that will have an impact on sea-level rise which we know is an imminent threat for many of our coastal communities."

The drastic slowdown is based on scenarios where humans fail to slash emissions effectively.

Rintoul said decisions today counted.

"It is another wake-up call - as if we needed more wake-up calls."

University of New South Wales Professor and report co-author Matthew England said slashing dangerous climate gases could ease the impact.

"It's hard to turn the ship around with this sort of physics, but by mid-21st century there's no doubt that emissions reductions would lower our meltwater input around both ... Greenland and Antarctica, and that would make a difference."

There was already physical evidence of the slowdown effect predicted by the modelling, he said.