Atlantic dominance of the meridional overturning circulation

A. M. de Boer, J. R. Toggweiler, Daniel Mikhail Sigman

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52 Scopus citations


North Atlantic (NA) deep-water formation and the resulting Atlantic meridional overturning cell is generally regarded as the primary feature of the global overturning circulation and is believed to be a result of the geometry of the continents. Here, instead, the overturning is viewed as a global energy-driven system and the robustness of NA dominance is investigated within this framework. Using an idealized geometry ocean general circulation model coupled to an energy moisture balance model, various climatic forcings are tested for their effect on the strength and structure of the overturning circulation. Without winds or a high vertical diffusivity, the ocean does not support deep convection. A supply of mechanical energy through winds or mixing (purposefully included or due to numerical diffusion) starts the deep-water formation. Once deep convection and overturning set in, the distribution of convection centers is determined by the relative strength of the thermal and haline buoyancy forcing. In the most thermally dominant state (i.e., negligible salinity gradients), strong convection is shared among the NA, North Pacific (NP), and Southern Ocean (SO), while near the haline limit, convection is restricted to the NA. The effect of a more vigorous hydrological cycle is to produce stronger salinity gradients, favoring the haline state of NA dominance. In contrast, a higher mean ocean temperature will increase the importance of temperature gradients because the thermal expansion coefficient is higher in a warm ocean, leading to the thermally dominated state. An increase in SO winds or global winds tends to weaken the salinity gradients, also pushing the ocean to the thermal state. Paleoobservations of more distributed sinking in warmer climates in the past suggest that mean ocean temperature and winds play a more important role than the hydrological cycle in the overturning circulation over long time scales.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)435-450
Number of pages16
JournalJournal of Physical Oceanography
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Oceanography


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