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The Role of Oceans and Sea Ice in Abrupt Transitions between Multiple Climate States

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  • 1 Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Seattle, Washington
  • | 2 Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
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Abstract

The coupled climate dynamics underlying large, rapid, and potentially irreversible changes in ice cover are studied. A global atmosphere–ocean–sea ice general circulation model with idealized aquaplanet geometry is forced by gradual multi-millennial variations in solar luminosity. The model traverses a hysteresis loop between warm ice-free conditions and cold glacial conditions in response to ±5 W m−2 variations in global, annual-mean insolation. Comparison of several model configurations confirms the importance of polar ocean processes in setting the sensitivity and time scales of the transitions. A “sawtooth” character is found with faster warming and slower cooling, reflecting the opposing effects of surface heating and cooling on upper-ocean buoyancy and, thus, effective heat capacity. The transition from a glacial to warm, equable climate occurs in about 200 years.

In contrast to the “freshwater hosing” scenario, transitions are driven by radiative forcing and sea ice feedbacks. The ocean circulation, and notably the meridional overturning circulation (MOC), does not drive the climate change. The MOC (and associated heat transport) collapses poleward of the advancing ice edge, but this is a purely passive response to cooling and ice expansion. The MOC does, however, play a key role in setting the time scales of the transition and contributes to the asymmetry between warming and cooling.

Corresponding author address: Brian Rose, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Box 351640, Seattle, WA 98195. E-mail: brose@atmos.washington.edu

Abstract

The coupled climate dynamics underlying large, rapid, and potentially irreversible changes in ice cover are studied. A global atmosphere–ocean–sea ice general circulation model with idealized aquaplanet geometry is forced by gradual multi-millennial variations in solar luminosity. The model traverses a hysteresis loop between warm ice-free conditions and cold glacial conditions in response to ±5 W m−2 variations in global, annual-mean insolation. Comparison of several model configurations confirms the importance of polar ocean processes in setting the sensitivity and time scales of the transitions. A “sawtooth” character is found with faster warming and slower cooling, reflecting the opposing effects of surface heating and cooling on upper-ocean buoyancy and, thus, effective heat capacity. The transition from a glacial to warm, equable climate occurs in about 200 years.

In contrast to the “freshwater hosing” scenario, transitions are driven by radiative forcing and sea ice feedbacks. The ocean circulation, and notably the meridional overturning circulation (MOC), does not drive the climate change. The MOC (and associated heat transport) collapses poleward of the advancing ice edge, but this is a purely passive response to cooling and ice expansion. The MOC does, however, play a key role in setting the time scales of the transition and contributes to the asymmetry between warming and cooling.

Corresponding author address: Brian Rose, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of Washington, Box 351640, Seattle, WA 98195. E-mail: brose@atmos.washington.edu
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