skip to main content


The NSF Public Access Repository (NSF-PAR) system and access will be unavailable from 11:00PM ET on Friday, December 15 until 2:00 AM ET on Saturday, December 16 due to maintenance. We apologize for the inconvenience.

Title: What Causes the AMOC to Weaken in CMIP5?

In a transient warming scenario, the North Atlantic is influenced by a complex pattern of surface buoyancy flux changes that ultimately weaken the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC). Here we study the AMOC response in the CMIP5 experiment, using the near-geostrophic balance of the AMOC on interannual time scales to identify the role of temperature and salinity changes in altering the circulation. The thermal wind relationship is used to quantify changes in the zonal density gradients that control the strength of the flow. At 40°N, where the overturning cell is at its strongest, weakening of the AMOC is largely driven by warming between 1000- and 2000-m depth along the western margin. Despite significant subpolar surface freshening, salinity changes are small in the deep branch of the circulation. This is likely due to the influence of anomalously salty water in the subpolar intermediate layers, which is carried northward from the subtropics in the upper limb of the AMOC. In the upper 1000 m at 40°N, salty anomalies due to increased evaporation largely cancel the buoyancy increase due to warming. Therefore, in CMIP5, temperature dynamics are responsible for AMOC weakening, while freshwater forcing instead acts to strengthen the circulation in the net. These results indicate that past modeling studies of AMOC weakening, which rely on freshwater hosing in the subpolar gyre, may not be directly applicable to a more complex warming scenario.

more » « less
Author(s) / Creator(s):
Publisher / Repository:
American Meteorological Society
Date Published:
Journal Name:
Journal of Climate
Page Range / eLocation ID:
p. 1535-1545
Medium: X
Sponsoring Org:
National Science Foundation
More Like this
  1. Abstract

    The subpolar North Atlantic (SPNA) shows contrasting responses in two sensitivity experiments with increased stratospheric aerosols, offering insight into the physical processes that may impact the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) in a warmer climate. In one, the upper ocean becomes warm and salty, but in the other it becomes cold and fresh. The changes are accompanied by diverging AMOC responses. The first experiment strengthens the AMOC, opposing the weakening trend in the reference simulation. The second experiment shows a much smaller impact. Both simulations use the Community Earth System Model with the Whole Atmosphere Community Climate Model component (CESM-WACCM) but differ in model versions and stratospheric aerosol specifications. Despite both experiments using similar approaches to increase stratospheric aerosols to counteract the rising global temperature, the contrasting SPNA and AMOC responses indicate a considerable dependency on model physics, climate states, and model responses to forcings. This study focuses on examining the physical processes involved with the impact of stratospheric aerosols on the SPNA salinity changes and their potential connections with the AMOC and the Arctic. We find that in both cases, increased stratospheric aerosols act to enhance the SPNA upper-ocean salinity by reducing freshwater export from the Arctic, which is closely tied to the Arctic sea ice changes. The impact on AMOC is primarily through the thermal component of the surface buoyancy fluxes, with negligible contributions from the freshwater component. These experiments shed light on the physical processes that dictate the important connections between the SPNA, the Arctic, the AMOC, and their subsequent feedbacks on the climate system.

    more » « less
  2. We explore the mechanisms by which Arctic sea ice decline affects the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) in a suite of numerical experiments perturbing the Arctic sea ice radiative budget within a fully coupled climate model. The imposed perturbations act to increase the amount of heat available to melt ice, leading to a rapid Arctic sea ice retreat within 5 years after the perturbations are activated. In response, the AMOC gradually weakens over the next ~100 years. The AMOC changes can be explained by the accumulation in the Arctic and subsequent downstream propagation to the North Atlantic of buoyancy anomalies controlled by temperature and salinity. Initially, during the first decade or so, the Arctic sea ice loss results in anomalous positive heat and salinity fluxes in the subpolar North Atlantic, inducing positive temperature and salinity anomalies over the regions of oceanic deep convection. At first, these anomalies largely compensate one another, leading to a minimal change in upper ocean density and deep convection in the North Atlantic. Over the following years, however, more anomalous warm water accumulates in the Arctic and spreads to the North Atlantic. At the same time, freshwater that accumulates from seasonal sea ice melting over most of the upper Arctic Ocean also spreads southward, reaching as far as south of Iceland. These warm and fresh anomalies reduce upper ocean density and suppress oceanic deep convection. The thermal and haline contributions to these buoyancy anomalies, and therefore to the AMOC slowdown during this period, are found to have similar magnitudes. We also find that the related changes in horizontal wind-driven circulation could potentially push freshwater away from the deep convection areas and hence strengthen the AMOC, but this effect is overwhelmed by mean advection.

    more » « less
  3. Abstract

    The effect of anthropogenic climate change in the ocean is challenging to project because atmosphere-ocean general circulation models (AOGCMs) respond differently to forcing. This study focuses on changes in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), ocean heat content ($$\Delta$$ΔOHC), and the spatial pattern of ocean dynamic sea level ($$\Delta \zeta$$Δζ). We analyse experiments following the FAFMIP protocol, in which AOGCMs are forced at the ocean surface with standardised heat, freshwater and momentum flux perturbations, typical of those produced by doubling$$\hbox {CO}_{{2}}$$CO2. Using two new heat-flux-forced experiments, we find that the AMOC weakening is mainly caused by and linearly related to the North Atlantic heat flux perturbation, and further weakened by a positive coupled heat flux feedback. The quantitative relationships are model-dependent, but few models show significant AMOC change due to freshwater or momentum forcing, or to heat flux forcing outside the North Atlantic. AMOC decline causes warming at the South Atlantic-Southern Ocean interface. It does not strongly affect the global-mean vertical distribution of$$\Delta$$ΔOHC, which is dominated by the Southern Ocean. AMOC decline strongly affects$$\Delta \zeta$$Δζin the North Atlantic, with smaller effects in the Southern Ocean and North Pacific. The ensemble-mean$$\Delta \zeta$$Δζand$$\Delta$$ΔOHC patterns are mostly attributable to the heat added by the flux perturbation, with smaller effects from ocean heat and salinity redistribution. The ensemble spread, on the other hand, is largely due to redistribution, with pronounced disagreement among the AOGCMs.

    more » « less

    Regional connectivity is important to the global climate salinity response, particularly because salinity anomalies do not have a damping feedback with atmospheric freshwater fluxes and may therefore be advected over long distances by ocean circulation, resulting in nonlocal influences. Climate model intercomparison experiments such as CMIP5 exhibit large uncertainty in some aspects of the salinity response, hypothesized here to be a result of ocean dynamics. We use two types of Lagrangian particle tracking experiments to investigate pathways of exchange for salinity anomalies. The first uses forward trajectories to estimate average transport time scales between water cycle regimes. The second uses reverse trajectories and a freshwater accumulation method to quantitatively identify remote influences in the salinity response. Additionally, we compare velocity fields with both resolved and parameterized eddies to understand the impact of eddy stirring on intergyre exchange. These experiments show that surface anomalies are readily exchanged within the ocean gyres by the mean circulation, but intergyre exchange is slower and largely eddy driven. These dynamics are used to analyze the North Atlantic salinity response to climate warming and water cycle intensification, where the system is broadly forced with fresh surface anomalies in the subpolar gyre and salty surface anomalies in the subtropical gyres. Under these competing forcings, strong intergyre eddy fluxes carry anomalously salty subtropical water into the subpolar gyre which balances out much of the local freshwater input.

    more » « less
  5. Abstract

    We investigate the impact of Arctic sea ice loss on the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) and North Atlantic climate in a coupled general circulation model (IPSL‐CM5A2) perturbation experiment, wherein Arctic sea ice is reduced until reaching an equilibrium of an ice‐free summer. After several decades we observe AMOC weakening caused by reduced dense water formation in the Iceland basin due to the warming of surface waters, and later compensated by intensification of dense water formation in the Western Subpolar North Atlantic. Consequently, AMOC slightly weakens in deep, dense waters but recovers through shallower, less dense waters overturning. In parallel, wind‐driven intensification and southeastward expansion of the subpolar gyre cause a depth‐extended cold anomaly ∼2°C around 50°N that resembles the North Atlantic “warming hole.” We conclude that compensating dense water formations drive AMOC changes following sea ice retreat and that a warming hole can develop independently of the AMOC modulation.

    more » « less