A new, National Science Foundation-funded study clarifies what influence major currents in the North Atlantic have on sea level along the northeastern United States. The study examined both the strength of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) -- a conveyor belt of currents that move warmer waters north and cooler waters south in the Atlantic -- and historical records of sea level in coastal New England. According to the researchers, a study like this was not even possible until recently. For the past few decades, satellite imagery has given scientists a record of movement at the ocean's surface, but has been unable to detect currents below the surface. Starting in 2004, however, an international team of scientists began maintaining a chain of instruments that stretch across the Atlantic between Florida and Morocco. The instruments, which are collectively called the RAPID array, hold a variety of sensors that measure currents, salinity and temperature. These findings are particularly important for residents along the northeast coast of the United States. Existing climate models suggest sea levels will rise globally in the next century due to climate change, but that sea level rise on the New England coast will be greater than the global average. Scientists have traditionally assumed that the heighted future sea level rise in the northeast U.S. is inextricably tied to a weakening of the AMOC, which the climate models also predict. But, given the study's findings, that assumption might need to be revisited.
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