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What is the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)?

The AMOC is a system of ocean currents that circulates water within the Atlantic Ocean, bringing warm water north and cold water south.

The global conveyor belt, shown here, circulates cool subsurface water and warm surface water throughout the world.

The global conveyor belt, shown in part here, circulates cool subsurface water and warm surface water throughout the world. The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation is part of this complex system of global ocean currents. This illustration is captured from a short video produced by NOAA Science on a Sphere.

The ocean’s water is constantly circulated by currents. Tidal currents occur close to shore and are influenced by the sun and moon. Surface currents are influenced by the wind. However, other, much slower currents that occur from the surface to the seafloor are driven by changes in the saltiness and ocean temperature, a process called thermohaline circulation. These currents are carried in a large "global conveyor belt," which includes the AMOC.

AMOC stands for Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. The AMOC circulates water from north to south and back in a long cycle within the Atlantic Ocean. This circulation brings warmth to various parts of the globe and also carries nutrients necessary to sustain ocean life.

The circulation process begins as warm water near the surface moves toward the poles (such as the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic), where it cools and forms sea ice. As this ice forms, salt is left behind in the ocean water. Due to the large amount of salt in the water, it becomes denser, sinks down, and is carried southwards in the depths below. Eventually, the water gets pulled back up towards the surface and warms up in a process called upwelling, completing the cycle.

The entire circulation cycle of the AMOC, and the global conveyor belt, is quite slow. It takes an estimated 1,000 years for a parcel (any given cubic meter) of water to complete its journey along the belt. Even though the whole process is slow on its own, there is some evidence that the AMOC is slowing down further. NOAA funds research to better understand this potential slowing, as well as to investigate the AMOC’s role in coastal sea level changes and its relationship to extreme events.

Is the AMOC slowing down?

As our climate continues to change, is there a possibility that the AMOC will slow down, or come to a complete stop? While research shows it is weakening over the past century, whether or not it will continue to slow or stop circulating completely remains uncertain. If the AMOC does continue to slow down, however, it could have far-reaching climate impacts. For example, if the planet continues to warm, freshwater from melting ice at the poles would shift the rain belt in South Africa, causing droughts for millions of people. It would also cause sea level rise across the U.S. East Coast.