Bistability of the thermohaline circulation identified through comprehensive 2-parameter sweeps of an efficient climate model

Marsh, R.; Yool, A.; Lenton, T. M.; Gulamali, M. Y.; Edwards, N. R.; Shepherd, J. G.; Krznaric, M.; Newhouse, S.; Cox, S. J. (2004). Bistability of the thermohaline circulation identified through comprehensive 2-parameter sweeps of an efficient climate model. Climate dynamics, 23(7-8), pp. 761-777. Springer-Verlag 10.1007/s00382-004-0474-1

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The effect of changes in zonal and meridional atmospheric moisture transports on Atlantic overturning is investigated. Zonal transports are considered in terms of net moisture export from the Atlantic sector. Meridional transports are related to the vigour of the global hydrological cycle. The equilibrium thermohaline circulation (THC) simulated with an efficient climate model is strongly dependent on two key parameters that control these transports: an anomaly in the specified Atlantic–Pacific moisture flux (ΔF a ) and atmospheric moisture diffusivity (K q ). In a large ensemble of spinup experiments, the values of ΔF a and K q are varied by small increments across wide ranges, to identify sharp transitions of equilibrium THC strength in a 2-parameter space (between Conveyor “On” and “Off” states). Final states from this ensemble of simulations are then used as the initial states for further such ensembles. Large differences in THC strength between ensembles, for identical combinations of ΔF a and K q , reveal the co-existence of two stable THC states (Conveyor “On” and “Off”)—i.e. a bistable regime. In further sensitivity experiments, the model is forced with small, temporary freshwater perturbations to the mid-latitude North Atlantic, to establish the minimum perturbation necessary for irreversible THC collapse in this bistable regime. A threshold is identified in terms of the forcing duration required. The model THC, in a “Conveyor On” state, irreversibly collapses to a “Conveyor Off” state under additional freshwater forcing of just 0.1 Sv applied for around 100 years. The irreversible collapse is primarily due to a positive feedback associated with suppressed convection and reduced surface heat loss in the sinking region. Increased atmosphere-to-ocean freshwater flux, under a collapsed Conveyor, plays a secondary role.

Item Type:

Journal Article (Original Article)


08 Faculty of Science > Physics Institute > Climate and Environmental Physics


500 Science > 530 Physics








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Date Deposited:

31 Aug 2021 15:37

Last Modified:

08 Feb 2022 06:59

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