Erwin Lambert
Geophysical Institute, University of Bergen, and Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research, Bergen, Norway

On the freshwater sensitivity of the Arctic-Atlantic thermohaline circulation

Time and place
Monday 9 November 2015, 14.15
Room C609, Arrhenius Laboratory, 6th floor

The North Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC) carries heat and salt toward the Arctic. This circulation is generally believed to be inhibited by northern freshwater input as indicated by the `box-model' of Stommel (1961). The inferred freshwater-sensitivity of the THC, however, varies considerably between studies, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The northernmost branch of the Atlantic THC, which forms a double estuarine circulation in the Arctic Mediterranean, is one example where both strengthening and weakening of the circulation may occur due to increased freshwater input. We have accordingly built on Stommel's original concept to accomodate a THC similar to that in the Arctic Mediterranean. This model consists of three idealized basins, or boxes, connected by two coupled branches of circulation - the double estuary. The net transport of these two branches represents the extension of the Gulf Stream toward the Arctic. Its sensitivity to a change in freshwater forcing depends largely on the distribution of freshwater over the two northern basins. Varying this distribution opens a spectrum of qualitative behaviours ranging from Stommel's original freshwater-inhibited overturning circulation to a freshwater-facilitated estuarine circulation. Between these limiting cases, a Hopf and a cusp bifurcation divide the spectrum into three qualitative regions. In the first region, the circulation behaves similarly to Stommel's circulation, and sufficient freshwater input can induce an abrupt transition into a reversed flow; in the second, a similar transition can be found, although it does not reverse the circulation; in the third, no transition can occur and the circulation is generally facilitated by the northern freshwater input. Overall, the northern THC appears more stable than what would be inferred based on Stommel's model; it requires a larger amount and more localized freshwater input to `collapse' it, and a double estuary circulation is less prone to flow reversal.