Environment Magazine

Climate Change and Atlantic Circulation

Posted on the 24 October 2012 by Climatesight

Today my very first scientific publication is appearing in Geophysical Research Letters. During my summer at UVic, I helped out with a model intercomparison project regarding the effect of climate change on Atlantic circulation, and was listed as a coauthor on the resulting paper. I suppose I am a proper scientist now, rather than just a scientist larva.

The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC for short) is an integral part of the global ocean conveyor belt. In the North Atlantic, a massive amount of water near the surface, cooling down on its way to the poles, becomes dense enough to sink. From there it goes on a thousand-year journey around the world – inching its way along the bottom of the ocean, looping around Antarctica – before finally warming up enough to rise back to the surface. A whole multitude of currents depend on the AMOC, most famously the Gulf Stream, which keeps Europe pleasantly warm.

Some have hypothesized that climate change might shut down the AMOC: the extra heat and freshwater (from melting ice) coming into the North Atlantic could conceivably lower the density of surface water enough to stop it sinking. This happened as the world was coming out of the last ice age, in an event known as the Younger Dryas: a huge ice sheet over North America suddenly gave way, drained into the North Atlantic, and shut down the AMOC. Europe, cut off from the Gulf Stream and at the mercy of the ice-albedo feedback, experienced another thousand years of glacial conditions.

A shutdown today would not lead to another ice age, but it could cause some serious regional cooling over Europe, among other impacts that we don’t fully understand. Today, though, there’s a lot less ice to start with. Could the AMOC still shut down? If not, how much will it weaken due to climate change? So far, scientists have answered these two questions with “probably not” and “something like 25%” respectively. In this study, we analysed 30 climate models (25 complex CMIP5 models, and 5 smaller, less complex EMICs) and came up with basically the same answer. It’s important to note that none of the models include dynamic ice sheets (computational glacial dynamics is a headache and a half), which might affect our results.

Models ran the four standard RCP experiments from 2006-2100. Not every model completed every RCP, and some extended their simulations to 2300 or 3000. In total, there were over 30 000 model years of data. We measured the “strength” of the AMOC using the standard unit Sv (Sverdrups), where each Sv is 1 million cubic metres of water per second.

Only two models simulated an AMOC collapse, and only at the tail end of the most extreme scenario (RCP8.5, which quite frankly gives me a stomachache). Bern3D, an EMIC from Switzerland, showed a MOC strength of essentially zero by the year 3000; CNRM-CM5, a GCM from France, stabilized near zero by 2300. In general, the models showed only a moderate weakening of the AMOC by 2100, with best estimates ranging from a 22% drop for RCP2.6 to a 40% drop for RCP8.5 (with respect to preindustrial conditions).

Are these somewhat-reassuring results trustworthy? Or is the Atlantic circulation in today’s climate models intrinsically too stable? Our model intercomparison also addressed that question, using a neat little scalar metric known as Fov: the net amount of freshwater traveling from the AMOC to the South Atlantic.

The current thinking in physical oceanography is that the AMOC is more or less binary – it’s either “on” or “off”. When AMOC strength is below a certain level (let’s call it A), its only stable state is “off”, and the strength will converge to zero as the currents shut down. When AMOC strength is above some other level (let’s call it B), its only stable state is “on”, and if you were to artificially shut it off, it would bounce right back up to its original level. However, when AMOC strength is between A and B, both conditions can be stable, so whether it’s on or off depends on where it started. This phenomenon is known as hysteresis, and is found in many systems in nature.

Climate Change and Atlantic Circulation

This figure was not part of the paper. I made it just now in MS Paint.

Here’s the key part: when AMOC strength is less than A or greater than B, Fov is positive and the system is monostable. When AMOC strength is between A and B, Fov is negative and the system is bistable. The physical justification for Fov is its association with the salt advection feedback, the sign of which is opposite Fov: positive Fov means the salt advection feedback is negative (i.e. stabilizing the current state, so monostable); a negative Fov means the salt advection feedback is positive (i.e. reinforcing changes in either direction, so bistable).

Most observational estimates (largely ocean reanalyses) have Fov as slightly negative. If models’ AMOCs really were too stable, their Fov‘s should be positive. In our intercomparison, we found both positives and negatives – the models were kind of all over the place with respect to Fov. So maybe some models are overly stable, but certainly not all of them, or even the majority.

As part of this project, I got to write a new section of code for the UVic model, which calculated Fov each timestep and included the annual mean in the model output. Software development on a large, established project with many contributors can be tricky, and the process involved a great deal of head-scratching, but it was a lot of fun. Programming is so satisfying.

Beyond that, my main contribution to the project was creating the figures and calculating the multi-model statistics, which got a bit unwieldy as the model count approached 30, but we made it work. I am now extremely well-versed in IDL graphics keywords, which I’m sure will come in handy again. Unfortunately I don’t think I can reproduce any figures here, as the paper’s not open-access.

I was pretty paranoid while coding and doing calculations, though – I kept worrying that I would make a mistake, never catch it, and have it dredged out by contrarians a decade later (“Kate-gate”, they would call it). As a climate scientist, I suppose that comes with the job these days. But I can live with it, because this stuff is just so darned interesting.

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