# What drives the gulf stream?

I’m not much of a fan of todays’ kids’ science books because they don’t teach science IMHO. They have nice pictures and a few numbers; almost no equations, and lots of words. You can’t do science that way. On the odd occasion that they give the right answer to some problem, the lack of math means the kid has no way of understanding the reasoning, and no reason to believe the answer. Professional science articles on the web are bad in the opposite direction: too many numbers and for math, hey rely on supercomputers. No human can understand the outcome. I like to use my blog to offer science with insight, the type you’d get in an old “everyman science” book.

In previous posts, I gave answers to why the sky is blue, why it’s cold at the poles, why it’s cold on mountains, how tornadoes pick stuff up, and why hurricanes blow the way they do. In this post, we’ll try to figure out what drives the gulf-stream. The main argument will be deduction — disproving things that are not driving the gulf stream to leave us with one or two that could. Deduction is a classic method of science, well presented by Sherlock Holmes.

The gulf stream. The speed in the white area is ≥ 0.5 m/s (1.1 mph.).

For those who don’t know, the Gulf stream is a massive river of water that runs within the Atlantic ocean. As shown at right, it starts roughly at the end of Florida, runs north to the Carolinas, and then turns dramatically east towards Spain. Flowing east, It’s about 150 miles wide, but only about 62 miles (100 km) when flowing along the US coast. According to some of the science books of my youth this massive flow was driven by temperature according to others, by salinity (whatever that means), and yet other books of my youth wind. My conclusion: they had no clue.

As a start to doing the science here, it’s important to fill in the numerical information that the science books left out. The Gulf stream is roughly 1000 meters deep, with a typical speed of 1 m/s (2.3 mph). The maximum speed is the surface water as the stream flows along the US coast. It is about 2.5 metres per second (5.6 mph), see map above.

From the size and the speed of the Gulf Stream, we conclude that land rivers are not driving the flow. The Mississippi is a big river with an outflow point near the head waters of the gulf stream, but the volume of flow is vastly too small. The volume of the gulf stream is roughly

Q=wdv = 100,000 x 1000 x .5 =  50 million m3/s = 1.5 billion cubic feet/s.

This is about 2000 times more flow than the volume flow of the Mississippi, 18,000 m3/s. The great difference in flow suggests the Mississippi could not be the driving force. The map of flow speeds (above) also suggest rivers do not drive the flow. The Gulf Stream does not flow at its maximum speed near the mouth of any river.  We now look for another driver.

Moving on to temperature. Temperature drives the whirl of hurricanes. The logic for temperature driving the gulf stream is as follows: it’s warm by the equator and cold at the poles; warm things expand and as water flows downhill, the polls will always be downhill from the equator. Lets put some math in here or my explanation will be lacking. First lets consider how much hight difference we might expect to see. The thermal expansivity of water is about 2x 10-4 m/m°C (.0002/°C) in the desired temperature range). To calculate the amount of expansion we multiply this by the depth of the stream, 1000m, and the temperature difference between two points, eg. the end of Florida to the Carolina coast. This is 5°C (9°F) I estimate. I calculate the temperature-induced seawater height as:

∆h (thermal) ≈ 5° x .0002/° x 1000m = 1 m (3.3 feet).

This is a fair amount of height. It’s only about 1/100 the height driving the Mississippi river, but it’s something. To see if 1 m is enough to drive the Gulf flow, I’ll compare it to the velocity-head. Velocity-head is a concept that’s useful in plumbing (I ran for water commissioner). It’s the potential energy height equivalent of any kinetic energy — typically of a fluid flow. The kinetic energy for any velocity v and mass of water, m is 1/2 mv2 . The potential energy equivalent is mgh. Combine the above and remove the mass terms, and we have:

∆h (velocity) = v2/2g.

Where g is the acceleration of gravity. Let’s consider  v = 1 m/s and g= 9.8 m/s2.≤ 0.05 m ≈ 2 inches. This is far less than the driving force calculated above. We have 5x more driving force than we need, but there is a problem: why isn’t the flow faster? Why does the Mississippi move so slowly when it has 100 times more head.

To answer the above questions, and to check if heat could really drive the Gulf Stream, we’ll check if the flow is turbulent — it is. A measure of how turbulent is based on something called the Reynolds number, Re#, it’s the ratio of kinetic energy and viscous loss in a fluid flow. Flows are turbulent if this ratio is more than 3000, or so;

Re# = vdρ/µ.

In the above, v is velocity, say 1 m/s, d is depth, 1000m, ρ = density, 1000 kg/m3 for water, and  0.00133 Pa∙s is the viscosity of water. Plug in these numbers, and we find a RE# = 750 million: this flow will be highly turbulent. Assuming a friction factor of 1/20 (.05), e find that we’d expect complete mixing 20 depths or 20 km. We find we need the above 0.05 m of velocity height to drive every 20 km of flow up the US coast. If the distance to the Carolina coast is 1000 km we need 1000*.05m/20 = 1 meter, that’s just about the velocity-head that the temperature difference would suggest. Temperature is thus a plausible driving force for 0.5 m/s, though not likely for the faster 2.5 m/s flow seen in the center of the stream. Turbulent flow is a big part of figuring the mpg of an automobile; it becomes rapidly more important at high speeds.

World sea salinity. The maximum and minimum are in the wrong places.

What about salinity? For salinity to work, the salinity would have to be higher at the end of the flow. As a model of the flow, we might imagine that we freeze arctic seawater, and thus we concentrate salt in the seawater just below the ice. The heavy, saline water would flow down to the bottom of the sea, and then flow south to an area of low salinity and low pressure. Somewhere in the south, the salinity would be reduced by rains. If evaporation were to exceed the rains, the flow would go in the other direction. Sorry to say, I see no evidence of any of this. For one the end of the Gulf Stream is not that far north; there is no freezing, For two other problems: there are major rains in the Caribbean, and rains too in the North Atlantic. Finally, while the salinity head is too small. Each pen of salinity adds about 0.0001g/cc, and the salinity difference in this case is less than 1 ppm, lets say 0.5ppm.

h = .0001 x 0.5 x 1000 = 0.05m

I don’t see a case for northern-driven Gulf-stream flow caused by salinity.

Surface level winds in the Atlantic. Trade winds in purple, 15-20 mph.

Now consider winds. The wind velocities are certainly enough to produce 5+ miles per hour flows, and the path of flows is appropriate. Consider, for example, the trade winds. In the southern Caribbean, they blow steadily from east to west slightly above the equator at 15 -20 mph. This could certainly drive a circulation flow of 4.5 mph north. Out of the Caribbean basin and along the eastern US coat the trade winds blow at 15-50 mph north and east. This too would easily drive a 4.5 mph flow.  I conclude that a combination of winds and temperature are the most likely drivers of the gulf stream flow. To quote Holmes, once you’ve eliminated the impossible, whatever remains, however improbable, must be the truth.

Robert E. Buxbaum, March 25, 2018. I used the thermal argument above to figure out how cold it had to be to freeze the balls off of a brass monkey.

# Ocean levels down from 3000 years ago; up from 20,000 BC

In 2006 Al Gore claimed that industry was causing 2-5°C of global warming per century, and that this, in turn, would cause the oceans to rise by 8 m by 2100. Despite a record cold snap this week, and record ice levels in the antarctic, the US this week banned all incandescent light bulbs of 40W and over in an effort to stop the tragedy. This was a bad move, in my opinion, for a variety of reasons, not least because it seems the preferred replacement, compact fluorescents, produce more pollution than incandescents when you include disposal of the mercury and heavy metals they contain. And then there is the weak connection between US industry and global warming.

From the geologic record, we know that 2-5° higher temperatures have been seen without major industrial outputs of pollution. These temperatures do produce the sea level rises that Al Gore warns about. Temperatures and sea levels were higher 3200 years ago (the Trojan war period), without any significant technology. Temperatures and sea levels were also higher 1900 years ago during the Roman warming. In those days Pevensey Castle (England), shown below, was surrounded by water.

During Roman times the world was warmer, and Pevensey Castle (right) was surrounded by water;. If Al Gore is right about global warming, it will be surrounded by water again by 2100.

From a plot of sea level and global temperature, below, we see that during cooler periods the sea was much shallower than today: 140 m shallower 20,000 years ago at the end of the last ice age, for example. In those days, people could walk from Asia to Alaska. Climate, like weather appears to be cyclically chaotic. I don’t think the last ice age ended because of industry, but it is possible that industry might help the earth to warm by 2-5°C by 2100, as Gore predicts. That would raise the sea levels, assuming there is no new ice age.

Global temperatures and ocean levels change by a lot; thousands of years ago.

While I doubt there is much we could stop the next ice age — it is very hard to change a chaotic cycle — trying to stop global cooling seems more worthwhile than trying to stop warming. We could survive a 2 m rise in the seas, e.g. by building dykes, but a 2° of cooling would be disastrous. It would come with a drastic reduction in crops, as during the famine year of 1814. And if the drop continued to a new ice age, that would be much worse. The last ice age included mile high glaciers that extended over all of Canada and reached to New York. Only the polar bear and saber-toothed tiger did well (here’s a Canada joke, and my saber toothed tiger sculpture).

The good news is that the current global temperature models appear to be wrongor highly over-estimated. Average global temperatures have not changed in the last 16 years, though the Chinese keep polluting the air (for some reason, Gore doesn’t mind Chinese pollution). It is true that arctic ice extent is low, but then antarctic ice is at record high levels. Perhaps it’s time to do nothing. While I don’t want more air pollution, I’d certainly re-allow US incandescent light bulbs. In cases where you don’t know otherwise, perhaps the wisest course is to do nothing.

Robert Buxbaum, January 8, 2014

# Chaos, Stocks, and Global Warming

Two weeks ago, I discussed black-body radiation and showed how you calculate the rate of radiative heat transfer from any object. Based on this, I claimed that basal metabolism (the rate of calorie burning for people at rest) was really proportional to surface area, not weight as in most charts. I also claimed that it should be near-impossible to lose weight through exercise, and went on to explain why we cover the hot parts of our hydrogen purifiers and hydrogen generators in aluminum foil.

I’d previously discussed chaos and posted a chart of the earth’s temperature over the last 600,000 years. I’d now like to combine these discussions to give some personal (R. E. Buxbaum) thoughts on global warming.

Black-body radiation differs from normal heat transfer in that the rate is proportional to emissivity and is very sensitive to temperature. We can expect the rate of heat transfer from the sun to earth will follow these rules, and that the rate from the earth will behave similarly.

That the earth is getting warmer is seen as proof that the carbon dioxide we produce is considered proof that we are changing the earth’s emissivity so that we absorb more of the sun’s radiation while emitting less (relatively), but things are not so simple. Carbon dioxide should, indeed promote terrestrial heating, but a hotter earth should have more clouds and these clouds should reflect solar radiation, while allowing the earth’s heat to radiate into space. Also, this model would suggest slow, gradual heating beginning, perhaps in 1850, but the earth’s climate is chaotic with a fractal temperature rise that has been going on for the last 15,000 years (see figure).

Recent temperature variation as measured from the Greenland Ice. Like the stock market, it shows aspects of chaos.

Over a larger time scale, the earth’s temperature looks, chaotic and cyclical (see the graph of global temperature in this post) with ice ages every 120,000 years, and chaotic, fractal variation at times spans of 100 -1000 years. The earth’s temperature is self-similar too; that is, its variation looks the same if one scales time and temperature. This is something that is seen whenever a system possess feedback and complexity. It’s seen also in the economy (below), a system with complexity and feedback.

Manufacturing Profit is typically chaotic — and seems to have cold spells very similar to the ice ages seen above.

The economy of any city is complex, and the world economy even more so. No one part changes independent of the others, and as a result we can expect to see chaotic, self-similar stock and commodity prices for the foreseeable future. As with global temperature, the economic data over a 10 year scale looks like economic data over a 100 year scale. Surprisingly,  the economic data looks similar to the earth temperature data over a 100 year or 1000 year scale. It takes a strange person to guess either consistently as both are chaotic and fractal.

It takes a rather chaotic person to really enjoy stock trading (Seen here, Gomez Addams of the Addams Family TV show).

Clouds and ice play roles in the earth’s feedback mechanisms. Clouds tend to increase when more of the sun’s light heats the oceans, but the more clouds, the less heat gets through to the oceans. Thus clouds tend to stabilize our temperature. The effect of ice is to destabilize: the more heat that gets to the ice, the more melts and the less of the suns heat is reflected to space. There is time-delay too, caused by the melting flow of ice and ocean currents as driven by temperature differences among the ocean layers, and (it seems) by salinity. The net result, instability and chaos.

The sun has chaotic weather too. The rate of the solar reactions that heat the earth increases with temperature and density in the sun’s interior: when a volume of the sun gets hotter, the reaction rates pick up making the volume yet-hotter. The temperature keeps rising, and the heat radiated to the earth keeps increasing, until a density current develops in the sun. The hot area is then cooled by moving to the surface and the rate of solar output decreases. It is quite likely that some part of our global temperature rise derives from this chaotic variation in solar output. The ice caps of Mars are receding.

The change in martian ice could be from the sun, or it might be from Martian dust in the air. If so, it suggests yet another feedback system for the earth. When economic times age good we have more money to spend on agriculture and air pollution control. For all we know, the main feedback loops involve dust and smog in the air. Perhaps, the earth is getting warmer because we’ve got no reflective cloud of dust as in the dust-bowl days, and our cities are no longer covered by a layer of thick, black (reflective) smog. If so, we should be happy to have the extra warmth.