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On the reduced sensitivity of the Atlantic overturning to Greenland ice sheet melting in projections: a multi-model assessment


Large uncertainties exist concerning the impact of Greenland ice sheet melting on the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) in the future, partly due to different sensitivity of the AMOC to freshwater input in the North Atlantic among climate models. Here we analyse five projections from different coupled ocean–atmosphere models with an additional 0.1 Sv (1 Sv = 106 m3/s) of freshwater released around Greenland between 2050 and 2089. We find on average a further weakening of the AMOC at 26°N of 1.1 ± 0.6 Sv representing a 27 ± 14 % supplementary weakening in 2080–2089, as compared to the weakening relative to 2006–2015 due to the effect of the external forcing only. This weakening is lower than what has been found with the same ensemble of models in an identical experimental set-up but under recent historical climate conditions. This lower sensitivity in a warmer world is explained by two main factors. First, a tendency of decoupling is detected between the surface and the deep ocean caused by an increased thermal stratification in the North Atlantic under the effect of global warming. This induces a shoaling of ocean deep ventilation through convection hence ventilating only intermediate levels. The second important effect concerns the so-called Canary Current freshwater leakage; a process by which additionally released freshwater in the North Atlantic leaks along the Canary Current and escapes the convection zones towards the subtropical area. This leakage is increasing in a warming climate, which is a consequence of decreasing gyres asymmetry due to changes in Ekman pumping. We suggest that these modifications are related with the northward shift of the jet stream in a warmer world. For these two reasons the AMOC is less susceptible to freshwater perturbations (near the deep water formation sides) in the North Atlantic as compared to the recent historical climate conditions. Finally, we propose a bilinear model that accounts for the two former processes to give a conceptual explanation about the decreasing AMOC sensitivity due to freshwater input. Within the limit of this bilinear model, we find that 62 ± 8 % of the reduction in sensitivity is related with the changes in gyre asymmetry and freshwater leakage and 38 ± 8 % is due to the reduction in deep ocean ventilation associated with the increased stratification in the North Atlantic.

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The research leading to these results has received funding from the European Union’s Seventh Framework Programme (FP7/2007-2013) under grant agreement no 212643 (THOR 2008-12), no 282672 (EMBRACE 2011-2015) and no 308299 (NACLIM). CR thanks the DKRZ for providing the facilities to perform the models simulation under the BMWF project bm0579. SMO was partly supported by the Danish Council for Strategic Research. DS benefited of the HPC resources of CCRT made available by GENCI (Grand Equipement National de Calcul Intensif). We thank two anonymous reviewers for their very useful comments that improved the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Didier Swingedouw.

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Swingedouw, D., Rodehacke, C.B., Olsen, S.M. et al. On the reduced sensitivity of the Atlantic overturning to Greenland ice sheet melting in projections: a multi-model assessment. Clim Dyn 44, 3261–3279 (2015).

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  • Greenland ice sheet melting
  • Thermohaline circulation
  • Oceanic gyre
  • Ocean–atmosphere interactions
  • Oceanic dynamics
  • Sea-level rise
  • AMOC
  • North Atlantic