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Scientists fear a critical Atlantic Ocean system might collapse, triggering 'extreme cold' and sea level rise

Scientists are worried the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), a "critical aquatic conveyer belt" that drives currents in the Atlantic Ocean, is at risk of near-complete collapse due to climate change, The Washington Post reports.

A shutdown of the crucial circulation system could "bring extreme cold to Europe and parts of North America, raise sea levels along the U.S. East Coast, and disrupt seasonal monsoons that provide water to much of the world," the Post reports. The effects, in short, would be devastating.

"The mere possibility that the AMOC tipping point is close should be enough for us to take countermeasures," warns Levke Caesar, a climate physicist at Maynooth University. 

Scientists previously believed the AMOC would in fact weaken this century, but didn't imagine total collapse within the next 300 years except in absolute worst-case warming scenarios. Now, according to a new study, that critical threshold "is most likely much closer than we would have expected," said Niklas Boers, the study's author and a researcher at the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research. Any exact date, however, is still unknown.

It would take years of monitoring and data collection to officially confirm the AMOC slowdown, but there is a degree of "jeopardy" associated with waiting for that proof, scientists say. Besides, possible consequences, like a "cold blob" in the ocean south of Greenland, are already being felt. 

Frighteningly, if the system does devastatingly shut down, the switch off would be irreversible in human lifetimes. "It's one of those events that should not happen, and we should try all that we can to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible," said Boers. "This is a system we don't want to mess with." Read more at The Washington Post.