Review of thermohaline circulation

The central factor in abrupt climatic shifts during the last glacial period was change in thermohaline circulation (THC), particularly in the Atlantic Ocean.  Two general processes underpin THC: differences in solar heating from low to high latitudes drive polewards flow of surface water; formation beneath sea-ice of dense brine that sinks to form an equatorwards flow of North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW).  Freshwater influx at high latitudes suppresses the formation of NADW, which, together with enhanced low-latitude evaporation, slows polewards surface flow..  Currently, the thermal influence and NADW formation dominates heat transport northwards in the North Atlantic, by carrying about a petaWatt at mid latitudes.  THC is of little consequence in the North Pacific, partly because its fresher surface water hinders dense-brine formation, and partly because any deep water formed beneath sea ice in the Arctic cannot flow through the very shallow Bering Straits.

Clearly THC is a sensitive mechanism, inseparable from other factors in climate forcing.  Having such a vast influence on heat transport, if it changes there are likely to be dramatic outcomes for climate, particularly along the eastern flank of the North Atlantic where much of the transported heat arrives.  Sea-ice formation around Iceland is decreasing, so a review article on THC and rapid climate change is essential reading (Clark, P.U. et al. 2002.  The role of thermohaline circulation in abrupt climate change.  Nature, v. 415, p. 863-869).  It is now known that the last glacial period was punctuated by short-period (~ 1-2 ka) warming-cooling episodes, known as Dansgaard-Oeschger events, one aspect of which was the launching of “armadas” of icebergs to latitudes as far south as Portugal (known as Heinrich events), which left their mark as occasional gravel layers in the otherwise muddy sediments on the deep Atlantic floor.  These episodes involved temperature changes over the Greenland icecap of as much as 15°C.  They began with warming on this scale within a matter of decades followed by slow cooling to minimal temperatures, before the next turn-over.  The deep cooling seems to have accompanied slowing and shut-down of THC.  Current global warming is likely to do three things:  increasing low-latitude evaporation, increasing freshwater influx to high-latitude Atlantic surface water and a decrease in sea-ice formation at the site of NADW formation.  Because all three drive down polewards heat flux, anthropogenic warming may well result in contrary climate shift in Western Europe and Scandinavia – freeze rather than thaw.  If it happens, chances are that it will be upon us with little warning.


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