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The Gulf Stream, together with its northern extension towards Europe, the North Atlantic Drift, is a powerful, warm, and swift Atlanticmarker ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexicomarker, exits through the Strait of Floridamarker, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United Statesmarker and Newfoundlandmarker before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The process of western intensification causes the Gulf Stream to be a northward accelerating current offshore the east coast of North America. At about 30°W, 40°N, it splits in two, with the northern stream crossing to northern Europe and the southern stream recirculating off West Africa. The Gulf Stream influences the climate of the east coast of North America from Florida to Newfoundland, and the west coast of Europe. Although there has been recent debate, there is consensus that the climate of Western Europe and Northern Europe is warmer than it would otherwise be; and that this is due to the North Atlantic drift, one of the branches from the tail of the Gulf Stream. It is part of the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre. Its presence has led to the development of strong cyclones of all types, both within the atmosphere and within the ocean. The Gulf Stream is also a significant potential source of renewable power generation.

Discovery and properties

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European discovery of the Gulf Stream dates to the 1513 expedition of Juan Ponce de León, after which it became widely used by Spanish ships sailing from the Caribbean to Spain. In 1786 Benjamin Franklin studied and mapped the current in detail. The Gulf Stream proper is a western-intensified current, largely driven by wind stress. The North Atlantic Drift, in contrast, is largely thermohaline circulation driven. By carrying warm water northeast across the Atlantic, it makes Western Europe (especially Northern Europe) warmer than it otherwise would be. However, the extent of its contribution to the actual temperature differential between North America and Europe is a matter of dispute as there is a minority opinion within the science community that this temperature difference is mainly due to the Atlantic Ocean being upwind of western Europe (producing an oceanic climate) and a landmass being upwind of the east coast of North America.

Formation and behavior

A river of sea water, called the Atlantic North Equatorial Current, flows westward off the coast of northern Africa. When this current interacts with the northeastern coast of South America, the current forks into two branches. One passes into the Caribbean Seamarker, while a second, the Antilles Current, flows north and east of the West Indiesmarker. These two branches rejoin north of the Straits of Floridamarker, as shown on the accompanying map.

The trade winds blow westward in the tropics, and the westerlies blow eastward at mid-latitudes. This wind pattern applies a stress to the subtropical ocean surface with negative curl across the north Atlantic oceanmarker. The resulting Sverdrup transport is equatorward. Because of conservation of potential vorticity caused by the northward-moving winds on the subtropical ridge's western periphery and the increased relative vorticity of northward moving water, transport is balanced by a narrow, accelerating poleward current, which flows along the western boundary of the ocean basin, outweighing the effects of friction with the western boundary current known as the Labrador current. The conservation of potential vorticity also causes bends along the Gulf Stream, which occasionally break off due to a shift in the Gulf Stream's position, forming separate warm and cold eddies. This overall process, known as western intensification, causes currents on the western boundary of an ocean basin, such as the Gulf Stream, to be stronger than those on the eastern boundary.

Consequently, the resulting Gulf Stream is a strong ocean current. It transports water at a rate of 30 million cubic meters per second (30 sverdrups) through the Florida Straits. As it passes south of Newfoundlandmarker, this rate increases to 150 million cubic meters per second. The volume of the Gulf Stream dwarfs all rivers that empty into the Atlantic combined, which barely total 0.6 million cubic meters per second. It is weaker, however, than the Antarctic Circumpolar Current.

Typically, the Gulf Stream is wide and to deep. The current velocity is fastest near the surface, with the maximum speed typically about . As it travels north, the warm water transported by the Gulf Stream undergoes evaporative cooling. The cooling is wind driven: wind moving over the water cools it and also causes evaporation, leaving a saltier brine. In this process, the water increases in salinity and density, and decreases in temperature. Once sea ice forms, salts are left out of the ice, a process known as brine exclusion. These two processes produce water that is denser and colder (or, more precisely, water that is still liquid at a lower temperature). In the North Atlantic Oceanmarker, the water becomes so dense that it begins to sink down through less salty and less dense water. (The convective action is not unlike that of a lava lamp.) This downdraft of heavy, cold and dense water becomes a part of the North Atlantic Deep Water, a southgoing stream. Very little seaweed lies within the current, although seaweed lies in clusters to its east.

During the month of November 2004, the Gulf Stream was said to have stopped for ten days. Scientists were puzzled by this behavior. Scientist Harry Bryden of the National Oceanography Center, declares, "We'd never seen anything like that before and we don't understand it. We didn't know it could happen." Lloyd Keigwin, a scientist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institutionmarker described the event as "the most abrupt change in the whole [climate] record". Kiegwin adds, ""It only lasted 10 days. But suppose it lasted 30 or 60 days? ... How can we rule out a longer one next year?". However, the whole affair was the result of measurements showing that the meridional overturning circulation actually seemed to have slowed for a while.
Schematic of the world's ocean currents.
Click for larger image.

Localized effects

The Gulf Stream is influential on the climate of the Florida peninsula. The portion off the Florida coast, referred to as the Florida current, maintains an average water temperature at or above during the winter. East winds moving over this warm water move warm air from over the Gulf Stream inland, helping to keep temperatures milder across the state than elsewhere across the Southeast during the winter. The Gulf Stream's proximity to Nantucketmarker adds to its biodiversity as it is the northern limit for southern varieties of plant life, and the southern limit for northern plant species.

The North Atlantic Current of the Gulf Stream, along with similar warm air currents, helps keep Irelandmarker and the western coast of Great Britainmarker a couple of degrees warmer than the east. However, the difference is most dramatic in the western coastal islands of Scotlandmarker.A noticeable effect of the Gulf Stream and the strong westerly winds (driven by the warm water of the Gulf Stream) on Europe occurs along the Norwegian coast. Northern parts of Norwaymarker lie close to the Arctic zone, most of which is covered with ice and snow in winter. However, almost all of Norway's coast remains free of ice and snow throughout the year. Weather systems warmed by the Gulf Stream drift into Northern Europe, also warming the climate behind the Scandinavian mountainsmarker.

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Effect on cyclone formation

The warm water and temperature contrast along the edge of the Gulf Stream often increases the intensity of cyclones, tropical or otherwise. Tropical cyclone generation normally requires water temperatures in excess of . Tropical cyclone formation is common over the Gulf Stream, especially in the month of July. Storms travel westward through the Caribbean and then, either move in a northward direction and curve towards the eastern coast of the United Statesmarker, or stay on a north-westward track and enter the Gulf of Mexicomarker. Such storms have the potential to create strong winds and extensive damage to the United States' Southeast Coastal Areas. Strong extratropical cyclones have been shown to deepen significantly along a shallow frontal zone, forced by the Gulf Stream itself during the cold season. Subtropical cyclones also tend to generate near the Gulf Stream. 75 percent of such systems documented between 1951 and 2000 formed near this warm water current, with two annual peaks of activity occurring during the months of May and October. Cyclones within the ocean form under the Gulf Stream, extending as deep as beneath the ocean's surface.

Possible renewable power source

The Gulf Stream transports about 1.4 petawatts of heat, equivalent to 100 times the world energy demand. and research into different ways to tap this power is being undertaken. One idea, which would supply the equivalent power of several nuclear power plants , would deploy a field of underwater turbines placed under the center of the core of the Gulf Stream. Ocean thermal energy could also be harnessed to produce electricity, utilizing the temperature difference between cold deep water and warm surface water.

See also



  1. 1785: Benjamin Franklin's Sundry Maritime Observations, NOAA Ocean Explorer
  2. (see also Rahmstorf.)
  3. Glossary of Meteorology (2009). Westerlies. American Meteorological Society. Retrieved on 2009-04-15.
  4. Matthias Tomczak and J. Stuart Godfrey (2001). Regional Oceanography: an Introduction. Matthias Tomczak, pp. 42. ISBN 8170353068. Retrieved on 2009-05-06.
  5. Earthguide (2007). Lesson 6: Unraveling the Gulf Stream Puzzle - On a Warm Current Running North. University of California at San Diego. Retrieved on 2009-05-06.
  6. Angela Colling (2001). Ocean circulation. Butterworth-Heinemann, pp. 96. Retrieved on 2009-05-07.
  7. Maurice L. Schwartz (2005). Encyclopedia of coastal science. Springer, pp. 1037. ISBN 9781402019036. Retrieved on 2009-05-07.
  8. National Environmental Satellite, Data, and Information Service (2009). Investigating the Gulf Stream. North Carolina State University. Retrieved on 2009-05-06.
  9. National Climatic Data Center. Climatic Wind Data for the United States. Retrieved on 2007-06-02.
  10. National Hurricane Center (2009). Atlantic Hurricane Database. Retrieved on 2009-04-14.
  11. S. Businger, T. M. Graziano, M. L. Kaplan, and R. A. Rozumalski. Cold-air cyclogenesis along the Gulf-Stream front: investigation of diabatic impacts on cyclone development, frontal structure, and track. Retrieved on 2008-09-21.
  12. David M. Roth. P 1.43 A FIFTY YEAR HISTORY OF SUBTROPICAL CYCLONES. American Meteorological Society. Retrieved on 2008-09-21.
  13. D. K. Savidge and J. M. Bane. Cyclogenesis in the deep ocean beneath the Gulf Stream. 1. Description. Retrieved on 2008-09-21.
  14. Jeremy Elton Jacquot. Gulf Stream's Tidal Energy Could Provide Up to a Third of Florida's Power. Retrieved on 2008-09-21.

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