'The Day After Tomorrow' Ice Age Scenario Could Be Possible, Researchers Say
Two separate and very different studies have confirmed a climate paradox—that global warming and a slowdown in the Atlantic Ocean currents could trigger climate change and bring a prolonged chill in Europe.
Icicles glisten as the sun sets in Denmark. Photo credit: Teralaser / Flickr
One researcher argues that not only could it happen, it must have happened every 1,500 years or so during the last Ice Age and that the transitions were complete within one to two centuries.
Another scientist has used the latest climate model to test what would happen if the Atlantic current slowed or collapsed during a period of global warming. He found that for 20 years the planet would cool, rather than continue to warm. And then global warming would resume.
Julia Gottschalk, an Earth scientist at Cambridge University and her colleagues report in Nature Geoscience that they examined links between ocean circulation and alternating cold and warm periods that ended 12,000 years ago—long before human civilization began to increase the carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere and trigger global warming.
The ocean phenomenon in question is known to climate scientists as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). The Gulf Stream that delivers surface tropic warmth to the North Sea and Scandinavia is part of this global climate machine, also sometimes referred to as the Atlantic Conveyor because it returns cold dense water along the ocean bottom towards the Equator and the Southern Ocean.
By looking at evidence from fossilized plankton and from ice cores, the Cambridge team pieced together a story of alternating Ice Age climate change independent of humans. As sea surfaces got warmer, icebergs broke off the Northern hemisphere ice sheets and large amounts of fresh water entered the oceans.
The circulation slowed rapidly, sea ice formed around Greenland and the northern hemisphere got colder again. The link between sluggish ocean circulation and rapid climate change could be seen, again and again, in the Ice Age sediments. The surprise was the speed at which such changes happened.
At least two studies this year have already raised the possibility of an Atlantic ocean circulation slowdown—driven by global warming—that could have costly consequences for Europe. So confirmation from the past is also important for climate scientists concerned with the future.
“Recent results suggest that the overturning circulation in the Atlantic has faced a slowdown during the last few decades,” Dr. Gottschalk says. “We are only beginning to understand what it would mean for global climate should this trend continue, as predicted by some climate models.”
And at least one climate model makes precisely such a prediction. Sybren Drijfhout, professor in physical oceanography and climate physics at the University of Southampton’s National Oceanography Center, writes in the journal Scientific Reports that he simulated the probability of an abrupt collapse of the AMOC phenomenon, as a consequence of manmade greenhouse warming.
This was the event that triggered climate disaster in the 2004 Hollywood movie The Day After Tomorrow. And although Professor Drijfhout’s paper does not cite the movie, he did use an advanced climate model to test the scientific premise on which the film was based.
He reports that the simulations show that if global warming and a collapse of AMOC occur simultaneously, the planet may cool, rather than warm, for about 20 years. Thereafter, global warming will resume as if AMOC had never collapsed. Within 40 years, the Earth would be warming at present rates.
This cooling is unlikely to involve the sudden, catastrophic glaciation in Europe and North America that provided part of the Hollywood spectacle. But it could certainly affect local European temperatures for a few decades.
“Near the eastern boundary of the North Atlantic (including the British Isles), it takes more than a century before temperature is back to normal,” Professor Drijfhout says.
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It's going to be back-to-school time soon, but will children go into the classrooms?
The American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) thinks so, but only as long as safety measures are in place.
Keeping Schools Safe<p>What will safer schools look like?</p><p>In a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/journals/jama/fullarticle/2766822" target="_blank">JAMA article</a> published last month, <a href="https://www.jhsph.edu/faculty/directory/profile/1781/joshua-m-sharfstein" target="_blank">Dr. Joshua Sharfstein</a>, a pediatrician and professor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, outlined suggestions — many of which are similar to AAP's.</p><p>Remote learning protocols must stay in place, especially as some schools stagger home and in-building learning. If another shutdown needs to occur, children will rely on distance learning completely, so it must be easy to switch to, he said.</p><p>He suggested giving parents a daily checklist to document their child's health. Kids should be screened quickly on arrival and be given hygiene supplies. Maintenance staff should use appropriate PPE and have regular cleaning schedules. A notification system should be in place if a case is identified, Sharfstein recommended.</p><p><a href="https://www.albany.edu/rockefeller/faculty/erika-martin" target="_blank">Erika Martin</a>, PhD, an associate professor of public administration and policy at University at Albany, said nutrition assistance and health services should be included. She called for tutoring programs with virtual options as well as technology access.</p>
Supporting Staff<p>Teachers and staff will be affected by safeguarding measures, noted <a href="https://directory.sph.umn.edu/bio/sph-a-z/rachel-widome" target="_blank">Rachel Widome</a>, PhD, an associate professor of epidemiology and community health at University of Minnesota.</p><p>"In order for all of the in-school precautions to work well, we'll be asking a lot of teachers and staff," Widome told Healthline. In addition to their usual workload, they'll now be asked to monitor mask-wearing, ensure children are keeping distance, and be aware of any symptoms.</p><p>Along with Sharfstein, Widome called for an increase in financial support. More employees will likely be required so teachers and staff members can keep up with the added demands.</p>
Should Kids Go Back?<p>While these guidelines may help get some schools to reopen, many people don't think children should go back to school over fears they could contract the disease and spread it to other vulnerable family members like grandparents, infant siblings, or their parents.</p><p>In a <a href="https://pediatrics.aappublications.org/content/early/2020/07/08/peds.2020-004879" target="_blank">Pediatrics</a> commentary, <a href="https://www.md.com/doctor/william-raszka-md" target="_blank">Dr. William V. Raszka, Jr.</a>, an infectious disease specialist at The University of Vermont Medical Center, argued that schools should open because school-aged children are far less important drivers of COVID-19 than adults.</p><p>But he says the risk and benefit is not equal among all students ages 5 to 18.</p><p>"Elementary schools are arguably higher priority for face-to-face schooling, since younger children are at lower risk for infection and transmission, and since parental supervision of younger children's distance learning may be particularly challenging," added Sorensen, who penned a <a href="https://jamanetwork.com/channels/health-forum/fullarticle/2767411" target="_blank">June article in JAMA</a> with reopening tips. "That means middle and high schools are more likely to emphasize distance learning."</p><p>Specific student populations, such as special education students and students with disabilities, would also benefit greatly from more time spent in face-to-face environments, Sorensen said.</p>
What Parents Can Do<p>Parents should ask for and receive frequent updates from schools about plans for the fall. They should also be informed about plans if and when COVID infections are identified, Sharfstein said.</p><p>"I'd like to see parents investing now, during the summer, in doing things that can slow and stop the spread of the virus in their communities," Widome said.</p><p>"Now is a good time for kids to practice wearing masks and get used to them as they may be wearing them for longer stretches if school starts up in person," Widome suggested.</p><p>She recommends parents try different mask designs and materials to see what children are more comfortable wearing.</p><p>"If you are using cloth face coverings, it's good to have extras on hand," Widome added.</p><p>Parents should model healthy behavior at home and while out in public — another thing that could affect how well children adapt to reopening practices, Sorensen said.</p><p>"Children may want to know more about face coverings," added <a href="https://www.linkedin.com/in/leescott/" target="_blank">Lee Scott</a>, chairwoman of the Educational Advisory Board at <a href="https://www.goddardschool.com/" target="_blank">The Goddard School</a>. "Dramatic play, such as creating or wearing a face covering, may help some children adjust to this concept." Schools can also show children photos of what faculty members look like in their masks so the students are familiar with that appearance.</p><p>Johns Hopkins University recently released its eSchool+ Initiative, a slew of resources surrounding education during the pandemic. These include a <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-checklist/" target="_blank">checklist for administrators</a>, report on <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/ethics-of-reopening/" target="_blank">ethical considerations</a>, and a tracker of <a href="https://equityschoolplus.jhu.edu/reopening-policy-tracker/" target="_blank">state and local reopening plans</a>.</p>
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