Colder winters and refugees: How changing ocean currents could impact Germany

Paul Krantz
Paul Krantz - [email protected]
Colder winters and refugees: How changing ocean currents could impact Germany
The Elbe meadows opposite Dresden's historic old town frozen from flooding in January. Photo: picture alliance/dpa | Robert Michael

A new study suggests that ocean currents in the Atlantic could be stopped by climate change, which would have huge impacts on weather in northern and western Europe.


A number of climate researchers and experts are voicing concern about warming water temperatures in the Atlantic, and how this could affect oceanic circulation in coming years.

Climate scientists have previously identified changing currents in the Atlantic Ocean as one of several devastating climate change tipping points.

Oceanic circulation helps to regulate the global climate, and has been relatively stable for thousands of years.

READ ALSO: Climate change 'the biggest worry' for people in Germany

But a new study published in Science Advances on February 9th suggests that Atlantic ocean currents, and the weather patterns they influence, are on the verge of dramatic change due to human caused climate change.

In the Atlantic, warm water currents flow up the east coast of the Americas toward the Arctic Circle, where it cools and sinks, pushing cold water currents down the west coast of Europe. This pattern of currents is called the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), and it’s known to help maintain Europe’s climate.

“AMOC tipping” or “AMOC collapse” refers to the end of this pattern of oceanic water flow due to oceanic temperature changes. It’s considered to be a major tipping point for climate change, because it would cause further dramatic changes to global weather patterns.

What would the AMOC collapse mean for Germany?

The disruption of normal oceanic currents in the Atlantic is expected to bring severe and abrupt weather pattern changes to Europe.

According to a comment published by Professor Stefan Rahmstorf from the Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research (PIK), “particularly northern Europe from Britain to Scandinavia would suffer devastating impacts, such as a cooling of winter temperatures by between 10C and 30C…”

So Germany could be expected to experience much colder winters and more severe winter storms that it has in recent years.

Arctic ice would also be expected to extend further south during the winter, coming much closer to Germany’s northern coast than it does today.

While this may at first sound like a bit of relief from warming global temperatures, experts warn that these changes will be dramatic and fast-hitting in their onset.


If winter weather conditions were to be unliveable in areas in the north, Germany could potentially see a new collection of climate refugees coming from the north.

AMOC collapse is also expected to bring about a metre of sea-level rise to northern Europe – that’s in addition to significant sea-level rise already expected to be caused by climate change.

Rising seas could create problems for sea-side cities in northern Germany, and would intensify flooding and storm surge issues in these areas. Northern cities like Bremen and Hamburg, have already experienced intensified flooding issues during recent storms.

READ ALSO: Torrential rain and flooding as Storm Zoltan ravages Germany

Additionally, according to a study published in Climate Dynamics journal, summer rainfall would likely decrease across northern Europe in an AMOC tipping event, “which may raise issues of water availability and crop production.”

This could impact food production in Germany and around the world, with some experts suggesting that available land for wheat and corn production could be cut in half.


While Germany and northern European states deal with abruptly colder weather patterns and reduced rain, intensified warming would be expected across the global south.

Why climate scientists say the new study is important

Previously studies had shown that the AMOC has slowed down in recent decades due to melting ice in the Arctic disrupting ocean currents in the North. But researchers were unable to say with confidence how soon the AMOC might collapse.

The new study, conducted by Danish researchers, identified an “observable early warning signal of AMOC tipping,” and suggests with more certainty that it will occur.

In Professor Rahmstorf’s summary of the study, he suggests that based on the new findings, a previous estimate of the tipping point occurring between 2025 and 2095 seems accurate.

That’s significantly sooner than estimates included in the last Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change (IPCC) report, which was based on older research.

Rahmstorf ended his comment on the study by emphasising: “The risk of an AMOC collapse is something to be avoided at all cost…We will continue to ignore this risk at our peril.”


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