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Stability of the Atlantic Overturning Circulation: Competition between Bering Strait Freshwater Flux and Agulhas Heat and Salt Sources

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  • 1 Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht, Utrecht University, Utrecht, Netherlands
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Abstract

The role played by interocean fluxes of buoyancy in stabilizing the present-day overturning circulation of the Atlantic Ocean is examined. A 2D model of the Atlantic overturning circulation is used, in which the interocean fluxes of heat and salt (via the Bering Strait, Drake Passage, and Agulhas Leakage) are represented by sources and sinks. The profiles and amplitudes of these sources are based mainly on the heat and salt fluxes in a high-resolution ocean model (OCCAM).

When applying realistic sources and sinks, a circulation is favored that is characterized by major downwelling in the Northern Hemisphere (northern sinking pole to pole circulation, NPP), and resembles the present-day Atlantic overturning circulation. The Southern Ocean sources appear to stabilize this circulation, whereas Bering Strait freshwater input tends to destabilize it. Already a small buoyancy input at southerly latitudes is enough to prohibit the existence of a southern sinking circulation (SPP), leaving the NPP circulation as a unique and stable solution. A large, factor 3 increase in Bering Strait freshwater import would be necessary to bring the SPP circulation back into existence.

Especially the Indian–Atlantic transfer of heat and salt, brought about by Agulhas Leakage, contributes considerably to the strength and, in particular, the stability of the northern sinking circulation. According to this model, shutting off the Agulhas Leakage, and consequently the so-called warm water route for North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) compensation, leads to a reduction of the overturning strength by 10% at most. These results imply that the way in which the NADW renewal takes place has implications for both the strength and stability of the Atlantic overturning circulation, giving the discussion about the warm versus cold water route for NADW compensation dynamical significance.

Moreover, when the stabilizing effect of the Agulhas Leakage on the overturning disappears, the destabilizing influence of the Bering Strait freshwater input becomes more effective. The system is then close to a regime where the northern and southern overturning circulations coexist as stable solutions. Perturbations in Bering Strait inflow may then easily lead to switches between the two circulation states. These results suggest that the absence of the Agulhas Leakage during the last ice age may have contributed to weakening of the glacial overturning circulation in the Atlantic. It may have made the thermohaline circulation vulnerable to variability caused either by regime switches, or by the excitation of oscillatory modes. The sudden restart of the Atlantic overturning circulation at the beginning of the Holocene may well have been stimulated by the coincident reopening of the Agulhas Gap.

Presence of the Agulhas Leakage may contribute to the relative stability of Holocene climate. Present-day climate may thus be more stable than previously thought.

Corresponding author address: Wilbert Weijer, Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Utrecht University, Princetonplein 5, 3584 CC Utrecht, Netherlands. Email: W.Weijer@phys.uu.nl

Abstract

The role played by interocean fluxes of buoyancy in stabilizing the present-day overturning circulation of the Atlantic Ocean is examined. A 2D model of the Atlantic overturning circulation is used, in which the interocean fluxes of heat and salt (via the Bering Strait, Drake Passage, and Agulhas Leakage) are represented by sources and sinks. The profiles and amplitudes of these sources are based mainly on the heat and salt fluxes in a high-resolution ocean model (OCCAM).

When applying realistic sources and sinks, a circulation is favored that is characterized by major downwelling in the Northern Hemisphere (northern sinking pole to pole circulation, NPP), and resembles the present-day Atlantic overturning circulation. The Southern Ocean sources appear to stabilize this circulation, whereas Bering Strait freshwater input tends to destabilize it. Already a small buoyancy input at southerly latitudes is enough to prohibit the existence of a southern sinking circulation (SPP), leaving the NPP circulation as a unique and stable solution. A large, factor 3 increase in Bering Strait freshwater import would be necessary to bring the SPP circulation back into existence.

Especially the Indian–Atlantic transfer of heat and salt, brought about by Agulhas Leakage, contributes considerably to the strength and, in particular, the stability of the northern sinking circulation. According to this model, shutting off the Agulhas Leakage, and consequently the so-called warm water route for North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) compensation, leads to a reduction of the overturning strength by 10% at most. These results imply that the way in which the NADW renewal takes place has implications for both the strength and stability of the Atlantic overturning circulation, giving the discussion about the warm versus cold water route for NADW compensation dynamical significance.

Moreover, when the stabilizing effect of the Agulhas Leakage on the overturning disappears, the destabilizing influence of the Bering Strait freshwater input becomes more effective. The system is then close to a regime where the northern and southern overturning circulations coexist as stable solutions. Perturbations in Bering Strait inflow may then easily lead to switches between the two circulation states. These results suggest that the absence of the Agulhas Leakage during the last ice age may have contributed to weakening of the glacial overturning circulation in the Atlantic. It may have made the thermohaline circulation vulnerable to variability caused either by regime switches, or by the excitation of oscillatory modes. The sudden restart of the Atlantic overturning circulation at the beginning of the Holocene may well have been stimulated by the coincident reopening of the Agulhas Gap.

Presence of the Agulhas Leakage may contribute to the relative stability of Holocene climate. Present-day climate may thus be more stable than previously thought.

Corresponding author address: Wilbert Weijer, Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research Utrecht, Department of Physics and Astronomy, Utrecht University, Princetonplein 5, 3584 CC Utrecht, Netherlands. Email: W.Weijer@phys.uu.nl

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