The long-term response of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) to climate change remains poorly understood, in part due to the computational expense associated with running atmosphere–ocean general circulation models (GCMs) to equilibrium. Here, we use a collection of millennial-length GCM simulations to examine the transient and equilibrium responses of the AMOC to an abrupt quadrupling of atmospheric carbon dioxide. We find that GCMs consistently simulate an AMOC weakening during the first century but exhibit diverse behaviors over longer time scales, showing different recovery levels. To explain the AMOC behavior, we use a thermal-wind expression, which links the overturning circulation to the meridional density difference between deep-water formation regions and the Atlantic basin. Using this expression, we attribute the evolution of the AMOC on different time scales to changes in temperature and salinity in distinct regions. The initial AMOC shoaling and weakening occurs on centennial time scales and is attributed to a warming of the deep-water formation region. A partial recovery of the AMOC occurs over the next few centuries, and is linked to a simultaneous warming of the Atlantic basin and a positive high-latitude salinity anomaly. The latter reduces the subsurface stratification and reinvigorates deep-water formation. GCMs that exhibit a prolonged AMOC weakening tend to have smaller high-latitude salinity anomalies and increased Arctic sea ice loss. After multiple millennia, the AMOC in some GCMs is stronger than the initial state due to warming of the low-latitude Atlantic. These results highlight the importance of considering high-latitude freshwater changes when examining the past and future evolution of the AMOC evolution on long time scales.
The long-term response of the ocean’s global overturning circulation to warming remains poorly understood largely because it is expensive to run state-of-the-art climate models. This study makes use of a unique collection of millennial-length climate simulations from different climate models to examine the response of the Atlantic overturning circulation to warming on long time scales. We find that climate models consistently simulate a weakening of the Atlantic overturning circulation during the first century after warming, but disagree on long-term changes, showing different recovery levels of the Atlantic overturning circulation. Using a simple expression, which emulates the evolution of the Atlantic overturning circulation in climate models, we show that climate models with little to no recovery tend to have a small North Atlantic salinity anomaly while climate models with a stronger recovery tend to have a large North Atlantic salinity anomaly. These results highlight the importance of monitoring high-latitude freshwater sources throughout the twenty-first century and considering the relative role of temperature and salinity changes when examining the future and past evolution of the Atlantic overturning circulation on long time scales.
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