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The Freshening of Surface Waters in High Latitudes: Effects on the Thermohaline and Wind-Driven Circulations

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  • 1 Department of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut
  • | 2 Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Program, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
  • | 3 Department of Earth, Atmospheric, and Planetary Sciences, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Cambridge, Massachusetts
  • | 4 Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, Princeton, New Jersey
  • | 5 Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences Program, Princeton University, Princeton, New Jersey
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Abstract

The impacts of a freshening of surface waters in high latitudes on the deep, slow, thermohaline circulation have received enormous attention, especially the possibility of a shutdown in the meridional overturning that involves sinking of surface waters in the northern Atlantic Ocean. A recent study by Fedorov et al. has drawn attention to the effects of a freshening on the other main component of the oceanic circulation—the swift, shallow, wind-driven circulation that varies on decadal time scales and is closely associated with the ventilated thermocline. That circulation too involves meridional overturning, but its variations and critical transitions affect mainly the Tropics. A surface freshening in mid- to high latitudes can deepen the equatorial thermocline to such a degree that temperatures along the equator become as warm in the eastern part of the basin as they are in the west, the tropical zonal sea surface temperature gradient virtually disappears, and permanently warm conditions prevail in the Tropics. In a model that has both the wind-driven and thermohaline components of the circulation, which factors determine the relative effects of a freshening on the two components and its impact on climate? Studies with an idealized ocean general circulation model find that vertical diffusivity is one of the critical parameters that affect the relative strength of the two circulation components and hence their response to a freshening. The spatial structure of the freshening and imposed meridional temperature gradients are other important factors.

Corresponding author address: Alexey Fedorov, Dept. of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University, P.O. Box 208209, New Haven, CT 06520. Email: alexey.fedorov@yale.edu

Abstract

The impacts of a freshening of surface waters in high latitudes on the deep, slow, thermohaline circulation have received enormous attention, especially the possibility of a shutdown in the meridional overturning that involves sinking of surface waters in the northern Atlantic Ocean. A recent study by Fedorov et al. has drawn attention to the effects of a freshening on the other main component of the oceanic circulation—the swift, shallow, wind-driven circulation that varies on decadal time scales and is closely associated with the ventilated thermocline. That circulation too involves meridional overturning, but its variations and critical transitions affect mainly the Tropics. A surface freshening in mid- to high latitudes can deepen the equatorial thermocline to such a degree that temperatures along the equator become as warm in the eastern part of the basin as they are in the west, the tropical zonal sea surface temperature gradient virtually disappears, and permanently warm conditions prevail in the Tropics. In a model that has both the wind-driven and thermohaline components of the circulation, which factors determine the relative effects of a freshening on the two components and its impact on climate? Studies with an idealized ocean general circulation model find that vertical diffusivity is one of the critical parameters that affect the relative strength of the two circulation components and hence their response to a freshening. The spatial structure of the freshening and imposed meridional temperature gradients are other important factors.

Corresponding author address: Alexey Fedorov, Dept. of Geology and Geophysics, Yale University, P.O. Box 208209, New Haven, CT 06520. Email: alexey.fedorov@yale.edu

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