Torrents of Antarctic meltwater are slowing the currents that drive our vital ocean ‘overturning’ – and threaten its collapse

Off the coast of Antarctica, trillions of tonnes of cold salty water sink to great depths. As the water sinks, it drives the deepest flows of the “overturning” circulation – a network of strong currents spanning the world’s oceans. The overturning circulation carries heat, carbon, oxygen and nutrients around the globe, and fundamentally influences climate, sea level and the productivity of marine ecosystems.

But there are worrying signs these currents are slowing down. They may even collapse. If this happens, it would deprive the deep ocean of oxygen, limit the return of nutrients back to the sea surface, and potentially cause further melt back of ice as water near the ice shelves warms in response. There would be major global ramifications for ocean ecosystems, climate, and sea-level rise.

Our new research, published in the journal Nature, uses new ocean model projections to look at changes in the deep ocean out to the year 2050. Our projections show a slowing of the Antarctic overturning circulation and deep ocean warming over the next few decades. Physical measurements confirm these changes are already well underway.

Climate change is to blame. As Antarctica melts, more freshwater flows into the oceans. This disrupts the sinking of cold, salty, oxygen-rich water to the bottom of the ocean. From there this water normally spreads northwards to ventilate the far reaches of the deep Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans. But that could all come to an end soon. In our lifetimes.