Climate response to external sources of freshwater: North Atlantic versus the Southern Ocean

Ronald J. Stouffer, Dan Seidov, Bernd J. Haupt

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The response of an atmosphere-ocean general circulation model (AOGCM) to perturbations of freshwater fluxes across the sea surface in the North Atlantic and Southern Ocean is investigated. The purpose of this study is to investigate aspects of the so-called bipolar seesaw where one hemisphere warms and the other cools and vice versa due to changes in the ocean meridional overturning. The experimental design is idealized where 1 Sv (1 Sv ≡ 106 m3 s-1) of freshwater is added to the ocean surface for 100 model years and then removed. In one case, the freshwater perturbation is located in the Atlantic Ocean from 50° to 70°N. In the second case, it is located south of 60°S in the Southern Ocean. In the case where the North Atlantic surface waters are freshened, the Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC) and associated northward oceanic heat transport weaken. In the Antarctic surface freshening case, the Atlantic THC is mainly unchanged with a slight weakening toward the end of the integration. This weakening is associated with the spreading of the fresh sea surface anomaly from the Southern Ocean into the rest of the World Ocean. There are two mechanisms that may be responsible for such weakening of the Atlantic THC. First is that the sea surface salinity (SSS) contrast between the North Atlantic and North Pacific is reduced. And, second, when freshwater from the Southern Ocean reaches the high latitudes of the North Atlantic Ocean, it hinders the sinking of the surface waters, leading to the weakening of the THC. The spreading of the fresh SSS anomaly from the Southern Ocean into the surface waters worldwide was not seen in earlier experiments. Given the geography and climatology of the Southern Hemisphere where the climatological surface winds push the surface waters northward away from the Antarctic continent, it seems likely that the spreading of the fresh surface water anomaly could occur in the real world. A remarkable symmetry between the two freshwater perturbation experiments in the surface air temperature (SAT) response can be seen. In both cases, the hemisphere with the freshwater perturbation cools, while the opposite hemisphere warms slightly. In the zonally averaged SAT figures, both the magnitude and the pattern of the anomalies look similar between the two cases. The oceanic response, on the other hand, is very different for the two freshwater cases, as noted above for the spreading of the SSS anomaly and the associated THC response. If the differences between the atmospheric and oceanic responses apply to the real world, then the interpretation of paleodata may need to be revisited. To arrive at a correct interpretation, it matters whether or not the evidence is mainly of atmospheric or oceanic origin. Also, given the sensitivity of the results to the exact details of the freshwater perturbation locations, especially in the Southern Hemisphere, a more realistic scenario must be constructed to explore these questions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)436-448
Number of pages13
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number3
StatePublished - Feb 1 2007

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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