European fisheries flip with long-term ocean cycle

April 17, 2013 by Alison Smith, PlanetEarth Online
European fisheries flip with long-term ocean cycle

A sudden switch from herring to sardines in the English Channel in the 1930s was due to a long-term ocean cycle called the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation (AMO), an international study shows. This is the first evidence linking the AMO to trends in important European fisheries.

The AMO is a 60- to 80-year cycle between warm and cold in the North Atlantic. There were warm periods from 1860-1890 and 1930-1960, and we are currently in another one that started in 1995.

"It's an important natural oscillation that's not always fully taken into account in ," says Professor Martin Edwards of the Sir Alister Hardy Foundation for in Plymouth, who led the study. "The AMO alternately masks and exaggerates the long-term rise in temperatures due to global warming, and helps to explain how the North Atlantic is warming faster than the global average in some areas."

The study, funded by the governments of the UK, Canada, Norway, the USA and Germany, compared data on sea-surface temperatures with measurements of plankton concentrations in the ocean since 1948, and historical records of sardine egg abundance and catches in the western English Channel and Norwegian Atlantic dating back to the 16th century. They showed that the AMO was the second most important factor influencing the distribution of plankton in the North Atlantic, after the man-made global warming trend, and the most important factor affecting sardine and herring stocks to the west and north of the UK and Norway.

European fisheries flip with long-term ocean cycle

The English Channel represents the boundary between , which prefer , and herring, which prefer cold. In warm periods, the boundary shifts northwards, and in cool periods it retreats southwards.

The AMO's effects on herring, sardine and other fish are dramatic. During the 1930-1960 , the weight of herring spawning in Norwegian seas increased by a factor of ten, while the herring fishery in the English Channel collapsed and was replaced a few years later by sardines. At the same time, the cod fishery extended northwards by an extra 1000km along the coast of Greenland. During the subsequent cool period in the 1970s, the herring population in the Norwegian Sea fell from 16 million tons to just 50,000, but since the start of the next warming period in the 1990s it has recovered to 1960 levels.

"We were surprised to find such a strong effect," says Edwards. "We thought that global warming would override these other natural signals – although we do expect the effect to dominate over the next 20-30 years." The results should help to improve the accuracy of climate models. It is difficult to disentangle the effects of the oscillation from the impacts of overfishing, though, because fishery statistics are poor, particularly from the past.

The AMO has important implications not just for fish and other marine life, but also for hurricane formation, the frequency of droughts in Africa and North America, and winter temperatures in Europe. The warm phase from 1930-1960 was associated with the Dustbowl drought in the mid-west USA, for example. Twice as many tropical storms mature into hurricanes during AMO warm phases.

The research team now plan to study the underlying mechanism driving the AMO, which may be linked to east-west movements of a cold-water current around Greenland and North America called the sub-polar gyre. They will study how the climate of northern Europe changes as the sub-polar gyre shifts.

Explore further: Study shows Atlantic Ocean influence on European summers

More information: Edwards M, Beaugrand G, Helaouët P, Alheit J, Coombs S (2013), Marine Ecosystem Response to the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. PLoS ONE 8(2): e57212. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0057212

Related Stories

Past tropical climate change linked to ocean circulation

August 23, 2012

A new record of past temperature change in the tropical Atlantic Ocean's subsurface provides clues as to why the Earth's climate is so sensitive to ocean circulation patterns, according to climate scientists at Texas A&M ...

No evidence of polar warming during penultimate interglacial

July 18, 2012

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), driven by temperature and salinity gradients, is an important component of the climate system; it transfers an enormous amount of heat via ocean currents and atmospheric ...

Recommended for you

Rainfall's natural variation hides climate change signal

February 22, 2018

New research from The Australian National University (ANU) and ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate System Science suggests natural rainfall variation is so great that it could take a human lifetime for significant climate ...

Seasonal patterns in the Amazon explained

February 22, 2018

Environmental scientists at the U.S. Department of Energy's (DOE) Brookhaven National Laboratory have led an international collaboration to improve satellite observations of tropical forests.


Adjust slider to filter visible comments by rank

Display comments: newest first

1 / 5 (4) Apr 17, 2013
"They showed that the AMO was the second most important factor influencing the distribution of plankton in the North Atlantic, after the man-made global warming trend,...."

The later gratuitous phrase is necessary for continued funding and they haven't even considered the global effects and interactions of the more powerful pacific oscillations w/ the AMO.

This reads as a great study but the authors inclusion of copious climastrology agitprop non-science reduces its actual value dramatically.

1 / 5 (4) Apr 17, 2013
And, in other science news, it was confirmed that the biggest impact of global warming has been the AGW "scientists" flip with the long-term scientific method to the red-herring they call AGW.

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.