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What is the Gulf Stream?

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  • Written By: Jessica Ellis
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 05 November 2016
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The Gulf Stream is an ocean current that runs through the Atlantic Ocean. Its unusual pattern and features have made it a subject of great study since its discovery in the 16th century. The current has an important warming effect on many of the areas it borders, including the tropical waters off Florida's east coast, and the western coasts of the British Isles.

The sun heats the earth unevenly, giving more warmth at the equator than at the poles. As the warmer wind moves toward the poles, it creates prevailing winds that can affect ocean movement. In the Atlantic, the North Atlantic trade winds move from west to east across the northern part of the ocean, while further from the equator, another set of winds called the Westerlies pulls from east to west. One of the results of this wind combination is the Gulf Stream, a powerful and enormous ocean current that flows up along the eastern edge of North America before branching into two separate streams that move toward Scandinavia and Southern Europe.

Although depth and width varies as it travels, the Gulf Stream can be over one mile (1.61 km) deep and reach more than two miles (3.22 km) across in some places. Although it starts out extremely warm in its southern reaches, temperature drops and salinity increases as it flows north. Even with the drop in temperature, the Gulf Stream is believed to increase the temperatures of the coastal regions of Scotland, Ireland, England, and Norway.

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Renowned for its size and warming capabilities, the Gulf Stream is also notable for its incredible speed. In some places, water moves at a blazing speed of between 100-200 million cubic meters of water per second. In comparison, experts estimate that the combined speed of all rivers flowing into the Atlantic, including the enormous Amazon and sturdy Mississippi rivers, is only .6 million cubic meters per second.

The Gulf Stream was first reported to the Western world by the explorer Ponce De Leon around 1513. Making use of it and the Westerlies, Spanish ships were able to navigate home faster, improving their ability to trade and colonize North America and the Caribbean region. In the late 18th century, American innovator Ben Franklin mapped the Gulf Stream, eventually convincing British sea captains to make use of the beneficial current to cut return trips to Europe by days and even weeks.

Some environmentalists fear that the Gulf Stream may suffer severe breakdowns as a result of global warming. In theory, if the current cannot flow to Northern Europe, temperatures in the region may drop severely as a result. As yet, there is insubstantial data to suggest that a breakdown is occurring, but many experts fear that rising water and air temperatures are already leading to an increase in the strength and number of tropical storms and hurricanes that gain power and speed from the Gulf Stream's awesome force.

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