A major Pacific current system is about to heat up – with potentially devastating repercussions

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Earth’s oceans are not only home to most of life on Earth, but they also function as heaters and coolers for the entire planet. This means that they are essential for the survival of all life, not just the flora and fauna that live underwater. Yet human industrial civilization has abused our oceans, and it shows. Scientists have known for years that the deluge of plastic pollution dumped in our seas makes them less safe for humans and wildlife. And last month, they learned from a new article that a vital current system in the Atlantic Ocean could soon destabilize, threatening hemispheric repercussions.

Now, a new study reveals that the Pacific Ocean may have its own issues with a comparable, albeit slightly smaller, current system. It is known as the Kuroshio Current and Extension, or KCE, a series of currents that meander from the South China Sea past the coast of Japan and into the North Pacific Ocean. Adriane R. Lam, paleooceanographer and postdoctoral fellow at Binghamton University, described the Kuroshio Current and Extension as “the workhorses of the ocean”.

Just as the Gulf Stream controls the movement of the ocean along the east coast of North America, the Kuroshio Current and Extension form the major western boundary currents in the Oceanic Gyre (i.e. – say a large circulating system) that stretches from the North American Pacific coast to Polynesia.

The KCE helps move heat from the tropics to cooler northern regions by moving gases and salt from equatorial regions. Indeed, the world’s northernmost corals exist in parts of the ocean within the KCE due to its ability to warm these waters. Yet like so much else on Earth, the KCE is at risk of stopping or altering its flow due to climate change.

This is the conclusion of this new study, co-authored by Lam and recently published in the journal Paleoceanography and Paleoclimatology. The researchers concluded conclusively, using observational data and modeling studies, that the KCE warms, adjusts its latitudinal position northward, and eventually increases the amount of hot water it displaces. north in the process. A previous study referenced by Lam found that the Kuroshio Current had warmed by 1 ° to 2.5 ° degrees Celsius between 1900 and 2008, which would represent a rate of warming two or three times faster than the global average temperature. from the ocean to the surface. This could be a red flag for serious weather and ecological problems in the near future for people living near the Pacific.

The good news is that the KCE alters its flow path over timescales that take around a decade, which means that these changes could be in part due to natural processes. This brings us to the bad news: If the KCE were disrupted, it could have serious consequences for humans and wildlife.


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“The extended Kuroshio Current is home to one of the greatest biodiversity (number of organisms) in the world ocean today,” Lam wrote to Salon. “This is one of the reasons why the Japanese fishing industry is so strong.” Such fisheries would, of course, be deeply affected by a disturbance of the KCE.

The studies offer various predictions of how KCE organizations will respond to major changes; cash could enter or exit the KCE, depending on a number of variables. The Kuroshio current also helps determine storm tracks and intensities, and strong storms influence the current itself. The current also spews moisture and heat into the lower atmosphere, impacting the weather from Japan to California.

The news of the extension of the Kuroshio Current comes against a backdrop of disturbing news about climate change and the world’s oceans. Last month, a report in the journal Nature Climate Change described how the southern Atlantic overturning circulation (AMOC) was likely to slow to dangerous levels or even come to a complete stop. If that happens, there could be drastic climate changes from northern Europe to central Africa. The news regarding the KCE is less gloomy because AMOC is, as Lam said, “the entire circulation system in the North Atlantic Ocean”. The KCE is more analogous to the Gulf Stream, which is part of the oceanic surface components of AMOC.


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