The dynamics of learning about a climate threshold

Klaus Keller, David McInerney

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

33 Scopus citations


Anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions may trigger threshold responses of the climate system. One relevant example of such a potential threshold response is a shutdown of the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (MOC). Numerous studies have analyzed the problem of early MOC change detection (i.e., detection before the forcing has committed the system to a threshold response). Here we analyze the early MOC prediction problem. To this end, we virtually deploy an MOC observation system into a simple model that mimics potential future MOC responses and analyze the timing of confident detection and prediction. Our analysis suggests that a confident prediction of a potential threshold response can require century time scales, considerably longer that the time required for confident detection. The signal enabling early prediction of an approaching MOC threshold in our model study is associated with the rate at which the MOC intensity decreases for a given forcing. A faster MOC weakening implies a higher MOC sensitivity to forcing. An MOC sensitivity exceeding a critical level results in a threshold response. Determining whether an observed MOC trend in our model differs in a statistically significant way from an unforced scenario (the detection problem) imposes lower requirements on an observation system than the determination whether the MOC will shut down in the future (the prediction problem). As a result, the virtual observation systems designed in our model for early detection of MOC changes might well fail at the task of early and confident prediction. Transferring this conclusion to the real world requires a considerably refined MOC model, as well as a more complete consideration of relevant observational constraints.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)321-332
Number of pages12
JournalClimate Dynamics
Issue number2-3
StatePublished - Feb 2008

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Atmospheric Science


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