What Is the Gulf Stream?

Have you ever watched a weather forecast and listened as the news anchor discussed how the Gulf Stream was impacting the weather? If it made you wonder what exactly the Gulf Stream is and why it’s so important to the weather, you’re not alone. We’ve been asking the same question.

What Is a “Gulf Stream”?

Close view of map showing the Gulf of Mexico
Credit: Bruce Rolff / Shutterstock

Contrary to how it might sound on your local weather report, the Gulf Stream is a warm ocean current from the Gulf of Mexico that moves into the Atlantic Ocean. While it begins in the Gulf of Mexico, it travels a great distance — as far north as Canada and across the Atlantic to the United Kingdom, parts of France and Spain, and even Scandinavia by the Norwegian Sea. The Gulf Stream always moves in a northeasterly trajectory away from the Gulf of Mexico.

Is This an Anomaly?

Aerial view of water currents churning and forming whirlpools
Credit: Andrey Armyagov / Shutterstock

Even though the Gulf Stream gets a lot of attention, it’s not a freak of nature. It is part of what is known as the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre. In total, there are five known gyres in the Earth’s oceans that all influence the weather and climate of their respective regions. A gyre simply means that there are rotating ocean currents. Within the North Atlantic Subtropical Gyre, there are other important currents, most notably the North Atlantic Drift, which brings cold water south, deep below the ocean’s surface.

Why Is the Gulf Stream Important?

Satellite photo of a hurricane moving across the ocean
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It’s no secret that warm water and extreme weather go hand in hand. For example, major weather events like hurricanes and cyclones are formed over warm water. While there are multiple ocean currents, the Gulf Stream is considered one of the strongest currents and the most important current in the northern hemisphere. Because of its northeastern movement, it helps to bring warm weather to Europe, despite the continent’s being at a high latitude.

Is This a New Discovery?

Underwater view of aquatic wildlife, fish and coral
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The Gulf Stream isn’t new. Some of the world’s most famous explorers relied on the strong current as part of their travel plans. By navigating within the Gulf Stream, ships could make the return journey to Europe in less time than it took them to reach the New World. Think of it in the same way that many planes will travel with a jet stream on return transcontinental flights to save time. The earliest mention of the Gulf Stream was in 1513 by the Spanish explorer Ponce de Leon. But the first map of the famed current wasn’t created until 300 years later by Benjamin Franklin.

And beyond the weather, the Gulf Stream is credited with aiding in the biodiversity of the Atlantic Ocean. Wildlife typically found in southern habitats can travel beyond their natural boundaries because the Gulf Stream carries warmer water into the north.

Why Does the Gulf Stream Form?

Aerial view of floating sea ice trapped in marine currents
Credit: diak / Shutterstock

Like all currents, the Gulf Stream is created through aquatic circulation. The official name is thermohaline circulation, and it’s caused by varying densities in the water. So in reality, the Gulf Stream is a natural phenomenon that takes place deep under the water’s surface.

Is the Gulf Stream a Permanent Fixture in the Atlantic Ocean?

Up close view of hawksbill turtle swimming underwater in Mexico
Credit: Brian Lasenby / Shutterstock

Technically speaking, yes. The Gulf Stream has been part of our observable world for a long time, even if the first known discovery was in 1513. But there are concerns that the Gulf Stream is slowing down. The threat of climate change could negatively impact thermohaline circulation, leading to the end of the Gulf Stream. And if the Gulf Stream were to disappear, that would mean harsher winters for western and northern Europe and a decline in biodiversity. But research isn’t conclusive as to how quickly this could occur — with timelines ranging from a few decades to centuries.

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