The Thermohaline Circulation and Vertical Mixing: Does Weaker Density Stratification Give Stronger Overturning?

Johan Nilsson Department of Meteorology, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

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Göran Broström Department of Meteorology, Stockholm University, Stockholm, Sweden

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Gösta Walin Department of Oceanography, Göteborg University, Göteborg, Sweden

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Abstract

The possibility that a decreased equator-to-Pole surface density difference could imply stronger rather than weaker thermohaline circulation (THC) is explored theoretically as well as with the aid of numerical simulations. The idea builds on the classical thermocline scaling, stating that the THC should increase with density difference as well as with vertical diffusivity. To explore possible changes in vertical diffusivity that would follow a change in the oceanic density difference, simple models of internal wave mixing are considered. For reasonable assumptions concerning the energy supply to vertical mixing, the overall diffusivity tends to increase with decreasing density difference. This enhancement of the vertical diffusivity acts to deepen the thermocline, an effect that can cause the THC to amplify despite that the surface density difference is reduced. This remarkable state of affairs is illustrated with simulations from a one-hemisphere ocean circulation model. In the simulations, two stratification-dependent diffusivity representations are investigated, which both imply that a weaker density difference will be associated with a stronger THC. The more common mixing representation, where the diffusivity is taken to be fixed, yields the opposite and well-known result: a weaker density difference will be associated with a weaker THC.

Corresponding author address: Johan Nilsson, Department of Meteorology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden. Email: nilsson@misu.su.se

Abstract

The possibility that a decreased equator-to-Pole surface density difference could imply stronger rather than weaker thermohaline circulation (THC) is explored theoretically as well as with the aid of numerical simulations. The idea builds on the classical thermocline scaling, stating that the THC should increase with density difference as well as with vertical diffusivity. To explore possible changes in vertical diffusivity that would follow a change in the oceanic density difference, simple models of internal wave mixing are considered. For reasonable assumptions concerning the energy supply to vertical mixing, the overall diffusivity tends to increase with decreasing density difference. This enhancement of the vertical diffusivity acts to deepen the thermocline, an effect that can cause the THC to amplify despite that the surface density difference is reduced. This remarkable state of affairs is illustrated with simulations from a one-hemisphere ocean circulation model. In the simulations, two stratification-dependent diffusivity representations are investigated, which both imply that a weaker density difference will be associated with a stronger THC. The more common mixing representation, where the diffusivity is taken to be fixed, yields the opposite and well-known result: a weaker density difference will be associated with a weaker THC.

Corresponding author address: Johan Nilsson, Department of Meteorology, Stockholm University, 106 91 Stockholm, Sweden. Email: nilsson@misu.su.se

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