Reexamining Linkages Between United States East Coast Sea-level and the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation

Thursday, December 13, 2018 - 13:40
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The densely populated United States east coast is especially vulnerable to sea level change, with ~2.4 million people and ~1.4 million homes between Maine and Florida less than 1 meter above mean high water. Here, sea level rise is already having adverse environmental, societal, and economic consequences, including increases in the severity and frequency of coastal flooding. Looking forward through the 21st century, regional ocean dynamics related to the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) have the potential to drive disproportionately high rates of coastal sea level rise relative to other locations.

The topic of historical and future relationships between AMOC and United States east coast sea level has thus been addressed by a wealth of research studies over the previous decade, both model- and observationally- based. Here, we review this literature and assess the degree to which it answers the following key questions:

  1. Is there a well-defined “AMOC signature” in coastal sea level?
  2. Are current generation climate models reliable for the purpose of assessing relationships between AMOC and coastal sea level (and thus projecting future changes in coastal sea level)?

We find that the relationship between sea level and AMOC is a sensitive function of both timescale and AMOC metric, limiting the validity of stationarity assumptions and posing challenges for assessments of model reliability. However, ongoing and future research engenders hope for continued increases in understanding (and reduced uncertainty in future sea level projections). In particular, we highlight recent findings addressing: 1) the spatiotemporal coherence of AMOC and related currents and 2) the communication of open ocean sea level signals to the coast.

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