Oceanic interdecadal thermohaline oscillations are investigated with a coarse-resolution version of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Modular Ocean Model. The geometry of the model is a box with a depth of 5000 m and a longitudinal width of 60°, spanning latitudes from 14.5° to 66.5°N. The model ocean is forced by a zonal wind stress, a heat flux parameterized by restoring the surface temperature toward a reference value, and a specified surface freshwater flux. Zonal wind stress, reference temperature, and freshwater flux are all longitudinally uniform, time-independent, and vary meridionally.
It is shown that the ocean model can be in a state of interdecadal oscillations, and a physical mechanism is explained. For these oscillatory solutions, both surface mean heat flux and basin mean kinetic energy vary with interdecadal periods. Temperature and salinity budget analyses reveal that these oscillations depend primarily on advective and convective processes. Horizontal advective heat transports from the subtropical region warm the subsurface water in the subpolar region, destablize the water column, and thereby enhance convection. Convection, in turn, induces surface cyclonic and equatorward flows, which, together with horizontal diffusion and surface freshwater input, transport subpolar fresh water into convecting regions, subsequently weakening or suppressing convection. During an oscillation, convection vertically homogenizes the water column, increases the surface salinity, creates a larger meridional gradient of surface salinity, and increases the efficiency of surface advective freshening in the convective region. The periodic strengthening and weakening of convection caused by subsurface advective warming and surface freshening in the subpolar region results in model interdecadal oscillations.
These advective and convective interdecadal oscillations are not sensitive to either the detailed distribution of subpolar freshwater flux or the horizontal diffusivity. They are mainly a result of halocline and inverted thermocline structure in the subpolar region, maintained by horizontal advective subsurface heating and surface freshening processes.