What Is The Atlantic Gulf Stream?

NOAA satellite imagery of the Atlantic Gulf Stream stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the British Isles in the North Atlantic Ocean.

5. Location

The Atlantic Gulf Stream, with a maximum speed of about 2.5 meters per second, is a powerful, warm, North Atlantic ocean current that arises in the Gulf of Mexico near the tip of Florida. From there, it flows northwards along the eastern coastlines of the USA and Canada’s Newfoundland before finally crossing the Atlantic where it splits into two current streams. Namely, these are the North Atlantic Drift, which washes the shores of Northern Europe, and the Canary Current, which recirculates off the shores of West Africa. The Atlantic Gulf Stream's current covers a width of about 100 kilometers, and has a maximum depth of 3,900 feet.

4. Historical Role

In 1512, the Spanish navigator and explorer Juan Ponce de León first discovered the existence of the Gulf Stream current while on an expedition upon the Atlantic Ocean. The discovery benefited Spain, as Spanish ships now started using the advantage provided by the current to navigate their ships between their new colonies in the Caribbean and Spain. The current also evoked the interest of the American genius Benjamin Franklin, who published a map of the Gulf Stream current in the 18th Century. A century later, in 1844, the United States Coast and Geodetic Survey started a systematic investigation of the current. Since then, the Atlantic Gulf Stream Current has been extensively studied, and presently satellites in space map the movements of the current by inferring the data obtained by recording the changing temperature and color patterns of the ocean where the current flows.

3. Economic Significance

The Atlantic Gulf Stream Current plays a major role in moderating the climate of the coastal regions along which it flows. For example, the current is responsible for maintaining mild temperatures in the southeastern United States, and is also powerful in moderating the climate of Northern Europe. The influence of this warm current is the reason why London, in the United Kingdom, has a considerably less severe winter than St. John’s in Newfoundland, Canada, though they sit at similar latititudes, and why the northern coasts of Norway remain ice-free in the wintertime. By making the Northern European coasts more habitable, the Atlantic Gulf Stream greatly benefits the economy of several European nations. The Atlantic Gulf Stream also holds immense potential for harnessing oceanic thermal energy, with which there are prospects of producing electricity, and scientists are already planning ways to exploit this energy.

2. Weather and Marine Habitats

The Atlantic Gulf Stream involves a stream of warm, fast flowing waters which moderates the temperatures of coastal areas along which it flows, and also invites tropical storms, especially in the month of July. At specific sites along the flow of the Gulf Stream, where warm waters of the current meet colder waters of the ocean, significant turbulence is produced that enhances plankton growth and attracts fish species to the region. Blue-fin tuna, Atlantic salmon, Flying fish, snappers, Yellow-fin tuna, Dolphin fish (Mahi mahi), and the Blue marlin are some of the common fishes found in the Gulf Stream waters.

1. Environmental Threats and Territorial Disputes

Evidence points to the fact that the Atlantic Gulf Stream current is gradually weakening. Climate change is primarily held responsible for such a phenomenon. It is believed that the melting of polar ice caps, triggered by global warming, holds the potential to diminish the force and flow of the Gulf Stream. This would mean a huge temperature drop of 4 to 6 degrees Celsius in the Northern European countries like the United Kingdom and Ireland. Besides Europe, climates in other parts of the world would also be affected by the disruption of the Atlantic Gulf Stream.


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