Sunday, 11 November 2012

WHAT IS THE GULF STREAM?


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The Gulf Stream is a strong, warm, fast moving ocean current that flows into the Atlantic Ocean and is often referred as originating in the Gulf of Mexico.  It makes up a portion of the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre.

The Gulf Stream results in the climate of Western and Northern Europe being warmer than it would be otherwise due to the North Atlantic Drift, one of the branches from the tail of the Gulf Stream.

The waters that feed into the Gulf Stream flow from the west coast of Northern Africa. The Atlantic North Equatorial Current flows from that continent across the Atlantic Ocean. The current splits into two currents when it reaches Eastern South America. One of these currents is the Antilles current which is funnelled through the islands of the Caribbean and between Mexico and Cuba.

The northern stream crosses to Northern Europe, whilst the southern stream recirculates off West Africa. Because these areas are often very narrow, the current is able to compress and gather strength. As it does so, it begins circulating in the Gulf of Mexico’s warm waters. It is here that the Gulf Stream becomes officially visible on satellite images so it is said that the current originates in this area.
Once it gains enough strength after circulating in the Gulf of Mexico, the Gulf Stream then moves east.  It rejoins the Antilles Current and exits the area through the Straits of Florida. Here, the Gulf Stream is a powerful underwater river that transports water at a rate of 30 million cubic meters per second.
It then flows parallel to the east coast of the United States and later flows into the open ocean near Cape Hatteras but continues moving north. In this deeper ocean water the Gulf Stream is its most powerful and splits into several currents, the largest of which is the North Atlantic Current.
The North Atlantic Current then flows further north and feeds the Norwegian Current and moves the relatively warm water along the west coast of Europe. The rest of the Gulf Stream flows into the Canary Current which moves along the eastern side of the Atlantic Ocean and back south to the equator.
The northern branch of the Gulf Stream, the North Atlantic Current, is deeper and is caused by thermohaline circulation resulting from density differences in the water.
Because ocean currents circulate water of different temperatures all over the globe, they often have a significant impact on the world’s climate and weather patterns. The Gulf Stream is one of the most important currents in this regard since it gathers all of its water from the warm tropical waters of the Caribbean and the Gulf of Mexico. As such, it keeps sea surface temperatures warm, causing the areas around it to be warm and more hospitable. Florida and much of the South-eastern United States for instance is mild all year round.
The greatest impact the Gulf Stream has on climate is found in Europe. Since it flows into the North Atlantic Current, it too is warmed (though at this latitude the sea surface temperatures are cooled considerably), and it is believed that it helps keep places like Ireland and England much warmer than they would otherwise be at such a high latitude. For example, the average low in London in December is 42°F (5°C) while in St. John’s, Newfoundland, the average is 27°F (-3°C). The Gulf Stream and its warm winds are also responsible for keeping northern Norway’s coast free of ice and snow.
As well as keeping many places mild, the Gulf Stream’s warm sea surface temperatures also aid in the formation and strengthening of many of the hurricanes that move through the Gulf of Mexico. Additionally, the Gulf Stream is important to the distribution of wildlife in the Atlantic. The waters off of Nantucket, Massachusetts for example are incredibly bio diverse because the presence of the Gulf Stream makes it the northern limit for southern species varieties and the southern limit for northern species.
Although there are no definitive answers, it is believed that the Gulf Stream could be in the future or is already being impacted by global warming and the melting of glaciers. Some studies suggest that with the melting of ice in places like Greenland, cold, dense water will flow into the ocean and disrupt the flow of the Gulf Stream and other currents that are part of the Global Conveyor Belt. If this were to happen, weather patterns worldwide could change.


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