Publisher: American Geophysical Union
Types: Part of book or chapter of book
The ocean moderates the Earth's climate due to its vast capacity to store and transport heat; the influence of the large-scale ocean circulation on changes in climate is considered in this chapter. The ocean experiences both buoyancy forcing (through heating/cooling and evaporation/precipitation) and wind forcing. Almost all ocean forcing occurs at the surface, but these changes are communicated throughout the entire depth of the ocean through the meridional overturning circulation (MOC). In a few localized regions, water become sufficiently dense to penetrate thousands of meters deep, where it spreads, providing a continuous source of deep dense water to the entire ocean. Dense water returns to the surface and thus closes the MOC, either through density modification due to diapycnal mixing or by upwelling along sloping isopycnals across the Southern Ocean. Determination of the relative contributions of these two processes in the MOC remains an active area of research. Observations obtained primarily from isotopic compositions in ocean sediments provide substantial evidence that the structure of the MOC has changed significantly in the past. Indeed, large and abrupt changes to the Earth's climate during the past 120,000 years can be linked to either a reorganization or a complete collapse of the MOC. Two of the more dramatic instances of abrupt change include Dansgaard-Oeschger events, abrupt warmings that could exceed 10°C over a period as short as a few decades, and Heinrich events, which are associated with massive freshwater fluxes due to rapid iceberg discharges into the North Atlantic. Numerical models of varying complexity that have captured these abrupt transitions all underscore that the MOC is a highly nonlinear system with feedback loops, multiple equilibria, and hysteresis effects. Prediction of future abrupt shifts in the MOC or “tipping points” remains uncertain. However, the inferred behavior of the MOC during glacial climates suggests that significant modifications to the present circulation are possible and that any change is likely to have a large effect on the Earth's climate.
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