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Cascading climate event 8,000 years ago was caused by a melting ice sheet

A melting ice sheet is the most likely cause of a major climate change event that transpired over 8,000 years ago, according to a new study.

This revelation, based on geological samples extracted from the Ythan Estuary in Scotland, could provide crucial insights into our current global warming predicament and its potential consequences.

The study involved a team of geo-scientists from four prominent Yorkshire universities. It was led by Dr. Graham Rush, a distinguished scholar affiliated with both the University of Leeds and Leeds Beckett University. 

Focus of the study

Over 8,000 years ago, the North Atlantic and Northern Europe experienced dramatic cooling. This was attributed to alterations in a dominant system of ocean currents known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). 

The AMOC plays a pivotal role in regulating the Earth’s climate by redistributing heat across the globe. When its typical flow is disrupted, significant climate changes can emerge, affecting ecosystems, sea levels, and weather patterns.

Breakdown of the AMOC

The researchers propose that the melting of an expansive ice sheet was the primary catalyst for the changes in AMOC, leading to an intense cooling event. 

According to the experts, an influx of a massive amount of freshwater into the salt-water seas of the North Atlantic may have caused the AMOC to breakdown.

Alarming discovery

To investigate, the research team extracted core samples from the sediment of the Ythan Estuary in Scotland. 

The analysis of microfossils and sediment revealed startling findings: sea levels had surged at rates far exceeding typical background fluctuations of about two millimeters per year, spiking at 13 millimeters annually. 

Individual sea-level events likely caused water levels to rise by approximately 2 meters in the Ythan Estuary.

New theory emerges

Traditionally, scientists believed that a giant freshwater source responsible for the disruption of the AMOC was Lake Agassiz-Ojibway. Located near present-day northern Ontario, this lake was roughly the size of the Black Sea. 

However, Dr. Rush’s team found that while this lake was undoubtedly substantial, it alone couldn’t account for the vast influx of freshwater that their core samples indicated.

Instead, the team proposes an alternative source: the melting of the Hudson Bay Ice Saddle. This ancient ice sheet covered a vast region spanning eastern Canada to the northeastern United States.

“We have shown, that although huge, the lake was not large enough to account for all that water going into the ocean and causing the sea-level rise that we observed,” said Dr. Rush.

Global impacts

Disruptions in ocean circulation have profound implications for our global climate. The historical climate event caused major drops in temperatures. 

In the North Atlantic and Europe, temperatures plummet between 1.5 and 5 degrees C, and persisted for approximately 200 years. 

This temperature drop also resulted in increased rainfall across Europe. Conversely, other regions, such as parts of Africa, suffered extended drought periods.

A cautionary tale 

The research team believes their findings provide crucial insights into our current era, where Greenland’s melting ice sheets may influence global climate systems. 

The ancient cooling event serves as a reminder of the delicate balance within our planet’s climate and the potential ramifications of major shifts in oceanic and atmospheric conditions.

Study implications 

“We know that the AMOC is currently slowing down and, although still debated, some forecasts indicate it could shutdown altogether,” said Dr. Rush. 

“However, by looking at past events we can learn more about what causes these changes and their likelihood.” 

“We have shown that rapid ice-sheet retreat, which may occur in Greenland depending on the path of future fossil fuel emissions, can cause a range of significant climatic effects that would have very worrying consequences.” 

The research is published in the journal Quaternary Science Advances.

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