The rôle of thermohaline circulation in climate

Syukuro Manabe, Ronald J. Stouffer

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38 Scopus citations


This article discusses the rôle of the THC in climate, based upon the results of several numerical experiments which use a coupled ocean-atmosphere model developed at the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory of NOAA, USA. The first part of the article explores the mechanism which is responsible for the abrupt climate change such as the Younger Dryas event using the coupled model. In response to the freshwater discharge into high north Atlantic latitudes over a period of 500 years, the THC in the Atlantic Ocean weakens, reducing surface air temperature over the northern north Atlantic Ocean, the Scandinavian Peninsula, and the circumpolar ocean and Antarctic Continent of the southern hemisphere. Upon the termination of the water discharge at the 500th year, the THC begins to intensify, regaining its original intensity in a few hundred years. In addition, the sudden onset and the termination of the discharge of freshwater induces the multidecadal fluctuation in the intensity of the THC, which generates the almost abrupt change of climate. It is noted that similar but much weaker oscillation of the THC is also evident in the control integration of the coupled model without freshwater forcing. The irregular oscillation of the THC mentioned above appears to be related to the fluctuation of the Subarctic Gyre and associated east Greenland current, yielding the evolution of the surface salinity anomaly which resembles that of "great salinity anomaly". The second part of this article describes the response of a coupled ocean-atmosphere model to the doubling and quadrupling of atmospheric carbon dioxide over centuries time-scale. In one integration, the CO2 concentration increases by 1%/year (compounded) until it reaches 4x the initial value at the 140th year and remains unchanged thereafter. In another integration, the CO2 concentration also incleases at the rate of 1%/year until it reaches 2x the initial value at the 70th year and remains unchanged thereafter. One of the most notable features of the CO2-quadrupling integration is the gradual disappearance of thermohaline circulation in most of the model oceans during the first 250-year period, leaving behind wind-driven cells. For example, thermohaline circulation nearly vanishes in the north Atlantic by the 250 years of the integration and remains very weak until the 900th year. However, it begins to restore the original intensity by the 1600th year. In the CO2-doubling integration, the thermohaline circulation weakens by a factor of more than 2 in the North Atlantic during the first 150 years, but almost recovers its original intensity by the 500th year. The weakening of the THC moderates temporarily the greenhouse warming over the north Atlantic Ocean and its vicinity. In both numerical experiments described above, the initial weakening of the THC results from the capping of oceanic surface by relatively fresh, low-density water, which surpresses the convective cooling of water in the sinking region of the THC.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)91-109
Number of pages19
JournalTellus, Series B: Chemical and Physical Meteorology
Issue number1 SPEC. ISS.
StatePublished - 1999
Externally publishedYes

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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