SciTech

Gulf Stream changes linked to rising sea level

Lindsay Roupe is a research technician in the fishes unit at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.
Lindsay Roupe is a research technician in the fishes unit at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences. Courtesy of Lindsay Roupe

The Gulf Stream is a large ocean current that runs along the East Coast and makes up part of the larger current system that extends from the Caribbean to the North Atlantic. The Gulf Stream transports warm, equatorial waters to the colder, northern regions and acts as a habitat for many open-ocean fish. North Carolina provides the easiest access to the current – at approximately 15 miles from Cape Hatteras, where sport fishermen frequently catch king mackerel, mahi mahi and blue marlin. Additionally, beachgoers can enjoy swimming in the warm ocean waters that the Gulf Stream brings to our coast.

Last summer, I had the opportunity to conduct independent research at a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration facility in Miami. This research involved looking at 16 years of ocean-monitoring data to determine how the Gulf Stream is changing in connection to sea level rise along the East Coast.

The Gulf Stream transports 30 billion gallons of water per second, and changes to that can greatly affect surrounding areas, such as North Carolina’s coastline. Recently, changes in Gulf Stream transport were linked to sea level rise, which some research suggests is occurring three to four times faster along the mid-Atlantic coast (Cape Hatteras to Cape Cod, Mass.) compared to global sea level rise. North Carolina’s coast is especially vulnerable because the Outer Banks sit only 6 to 9 feet above sea level on average, meaning the islands are susceptible to increased flooding, beach erosion and freshwater contamination.

My research revealed a gradual decrease in Gulf Stream transport during the past 16 years, associated with an increase in sea level rise of 0.15 inches per year. At this rate, sea levels across the Gulf Stream would rise approximately 1 foot by 2100, contributing to sea level rise along the mid-Atlantic coast. While these changes might seem small, a fluctuation of that size can vastly change the shape of North Carolina’s coastline over time.

This internship allowed me to participate in some exciting research, and to appreciate the necessity of long-term monitoring programs, such as those at NOAA. The information these programs provide allows us to view past and present environmental conditions, greatly improving future predictions and preparedness. These efforts will lead to better estimates of sea level rise and improved predictions of the future of some favorite vacation spots.

Lindsay Roupe is a research technician in the fishes unit at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences.

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