To main content

A synthesis of the ecosystem responses to the late 20th century cold period in the northern North Atlantic

Academic article
Year of publication
ICES Journal of Marine Science
External websites
Kenneth F. Drinkwater, Trond Kristiansen


Following rapid cooling in the 1960s, much of the North Atlantic Ocean was characterized by a cold period during the 1970s and 1980s. This cold period was part of the multidecadal variability in sea surface temperatures known as the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation or AMO, which has a period of ∼60–80 years. During this cold period, below average air and sea temperatures predominated, increased ice cover was observed in those northern regions with seasonal sea ice, and evidence was found of reduced Atlantic inflow into the Northeast Atlantic Ocean. The ecological responses included a reduction in primary production and geographic shifts in zooplankton species. Also, there was a general southward expansion of arctic and boreal fish species and a retreat of the temperate species. Major fish stocks such as Atlantic cod off Greenland and Labrador/northern Newfoundland, as well as the Norwegian spring-spawning herring, collapsed commercially. These collapses were partly driven by climate-induced declines in growth rates and recruitment survival, as well as fishing. In contrast, in the more southern range of Atlantic cod, such as the North Sea, the opposite response occurred as the cool conditions led to improved growth rates and higher abundance. Long-term measurements in the English Channel documented the replacement of several warm-water species with more northern cold-water species. Benthic and nearshore species also underwent distributional shifts and changing abundances. Comparisons with the responses to the warm periods suggest that following the cold period of the 1970s and 1980s, the ecosystem in the 1990s and 2000s returned to conditions akin to what they were in the previous warm period of the 1930s–1950s. However, there were some notable exceptions, such as the continued low abundance of Atlantic cod off West Greenland and Labrador/northern Newfoundland.