A study published in the journal Nature Communications this past week suggests part of the Atlantic Ocean’s most important circulation system is on the verge of collapse.
Scientists have been keeping a wary eye on the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation for years, noting that as sea temperatures rise, the system is becoming slower and less resilient. The AMOC carries warm salt water from the tropics north to the North Atlantic, then carries colder, less salty water south along the ocean floor.
The general consensus among the scientific community is that, as more Arctic ice melts, the influx of cold freshwater into the AMOC will throw a wrench into the whole system, possibly causing it to grind to a halt. The new study suggests the AMOC could collapse as soon as 2025 or as late as 2095. However, the most recent United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, looking at a more comprehensive data set, suggests “medium confidence” the AMOC won’t collapse before the end of the 21st century.
What happens if the AMOC does collapse? The study’s authors say it could lead to a drop in temperatures in northern Europe, elevated warming in the tropics and stronger storms along North America’s East Coast.
All of this might sound like someone else’s problem to us here in West Virginia. We’ve been largely sheltered from some of the worst effects of climate change, such as increasingly destructive hurricanes, more frequent tornadoes, more extended droughts and unstoppable wildfires. But even we are not immune: We’ve been hit by record-breaking heat waves and pummeled by catastrophic storms and floods.
And the engine driving climate change is the burning of fossil fuels.
Fossil fuels have also long been the economic engine of West Virginia, and many elected representatives want to preserve West Virginia’s existing economy. However, doubling-down on fossil fuel industries here in the Mountain State provides limited short-term gain but results in widespread, long-term harm. Because there will more than likely be a point when climate change becomes so severe that our rolling hills and valleys can no longer protect us.
Is the world ready to completely cut out fossil fuels? No, it’s not. But instead of increasing fossil fuel production and related infrastructure (à la the Mountain Valley Pipeline) the way politicians seem wont to do (we’re looking you, Sens. Manchin and Capito and Reps. Miller and Mooney), we need to pivot toward alternative energies.
Fossil fuels will eventually run out. And if we (as a world) haven’t made the investments and advancements in alternative fuels, we’ll all be out of luck. And we (in West Virginia) will be particularly screwed.
West Virginia is littered with dying and dead boom towns that sprung up around fossil fuel hotspots only to wither when the resources dry up and the extraction companies pack up and leave. An economy based on a finite resource is not sustainable. We cannot keep banking on industries that will leave us for broke and broken. We must make a change. Our survival depends on it.