Can Arctic Sea Ice Decline Weaken the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation?

Thursday, December 14, 2017 - 17:30
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The ongoing decline of Arctic sea ice exposes the ocean to anomalous surface heat and freshwater fluxes, resulting in positive buoyancy anomalies that can affect ocean circulation. In this study (detailed in Sevellec, Fedorov, Liu 2017, Nature Climate Change) we apply an optimal flux perturbation framework and comprehensive climate model simulations (using CESM) to estimate the sensitivity of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) to such buoyancy forcing over the Arctic and globally, and more generally AMOC sensitivity to sea ice decline. We find that on decadal timescales flux anomalies over the subpolar North Atlantic have the largest impact on the AMOC; however, on multi-decadal timescales (longer than 20 years), anomalies in the Arctic become more important. These positive buoyancy anomalies from the Arctic spread to the North Atlantic, weakening the AMOC and its poleward heat transport after several decades. Therefore, the Arctic sea ice decline may explain the suggested slow-down of the AMOC and the “Warming Hole” persisting in the subpolar North Atlantic. Further, we discuss how the proposed connection, i.e. Arctic sea ice contraction would lead to an AMOC slow-down, varies across different earth system models. Overall, this study demonstrates that Arctic sea ice decline can play an active role in ocean and climate change.

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