More on Thermohaline Circulation

June 16, 2009

In a previous post “The Thermohaline Circulation Only Stops for Extreme, Unrealistic Models,” I compared the amount of fresh water used in “hosing experiment” models to drastically reduce the thermohaline circulation (THC, or Meridional Overturning Circulation, MOC) to the amount of water flowing over Niagara Falls, or flowing from all rivers into the Arctic,  or coming off of Greenland due to melting ice.

The key number was one Sverdrup, or 1 million cubic meters of fresh water per second.  One Sverdrup of fresh water artificially dumped into the Labrador sea, for 100 years would have the feared effect.  But it turns out that one Sverdrup of fresh water is 350 times the amount of water flowing over Niagara falls, and about 300 times the amount of water from melting ice that flows off of Greenland.  It was seen that there is not plausible source for this amount of extra fresh water to be dumped into the arctic.

An interesting letter that appeared in Science a year ago gives a little more perspective,  So I have reproduced it in full here:

Freshwater Forcing: Will History Repeat Itself?

IN THEIR RESEARCH ARTICLE “REDUCED North Atlantic deep water coeval with the glacial Lake Agassiz freshwater outburst” (4 January, p. 60), H. F. Kleiven et al. present compelling evidence for an abrupt deep-ocean response to the release of freshwater from glacial Lake Agassiz into the northwest Atlantic about 8400 years ago. Such data are particularly important in evaluating the response in ocean models of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (MOC) to freshwater forcing. For this event, the freshwater forcing was likely large but short; Clarke et al. (1) estimate that the flood had a freshwater flux of 4 to 9 Sv [Sverdrups] released in 0.5 years.

In this context, we are aware of no possible mechanism that might reproduce such a forcing in response to global warming, and all available model simulations, including those with estimates of maximum Greenland Ice Sheet (GIS) melting rates, indicate that it is very unlikely that the MOC will undergo an abrupt transition during the course of the 21st century (2). Multimodel ensemble averages under Special Report on Emissions Scenario (SRES) A1B suggest a best estimate of 25 to 30% reduction in the overall MOC strength (2). In one example, 14 coupled models simulated a 100-year 0.1-Sv freshwater perturbation to the northern North Atlantic Ocean—17 times the recently estimated melt rates from the GIS [Greenland Ice Sheet]—and the MOC weakened by a multimodel mean of 30% after 100 years; none of the models simulated a shutdown (3). Another model simulated greenhouse gas levels that increased to four times preindustrial values and then remained fixed; the resulting GIS displayed a peak melting rate of about 0.1 Sv, with little effect on the MOC (4). One model simulation uses the SRES  freshwater forcing as an upper-bound estimate of potential GIS melting. In this case, the MOC weakened but subsequently recovered its strength, indicating that GIS melting would not cause abrupt climate change in the 21st century (5). Accordingly, we urge caution in drawing comparisons of the abrupt change 8400 years ago to future scenarios involving, for example, the melting of the GIS and its relevance to human societies.

1Department of Geosciences, Oregon State University, Corvallis, OR 97331, USA.
2Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory/NOAA, Princeton, NJ 08542, USA.
3School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, University of Victoria, Victoria, BC V8W 3P6, Canada.

1. G. K. C. Clarke, D. W. Leverington, J. T. Teller, A. S. Dyke, Quat. Sci. Rev. 23, 389 (2004).
2. G. A Meehl et al., in Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, S. Solomon et al., Eds. (Cambridge Univ. Press, New York, 2007), pp. 747–845.
3. R. J. Stouffer et al., J. Clim. 19, 1365 (2006).
4. J. K. Ridley, P. Huybrechts, J. M. Gregory, J. A. Lowe, J. Clim. 17, 3409 (2005).
5. J. H. Jungclaus, H. Haak, M. Esch, E. Roeckner, J. Marotzke, Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, 10.1029/2006GL026815 (2006).

So, the event that occurred 8400 years ago involved 4 to 9 Sverdrups of fresh water.  This is THOUSANDS of times greater than the flow of the Niagara Falls today.  It is THOUSANDS of times greater than the amount of fresh water flowing from melting Greenland ice today. It is multiples bigger than the entire fresh water budget into the Arctic.

Note that in my previous post I referred to hosing experiments that pumped up to one Sverdrup of fresh water into the oceans.   The authors of the above letter refer to hosing experiments that used only 0.1 Sverdrups – yet they still point out how gigantic this is compared to actual sources of fresh water in the Arctic today.

So, when Al Gore ominously implies that that the Greenland Ice Sheet [GIS] is going to melt down and dump enough fresh water into the Atlantic Ocean to shut down the Thermohaline Circulation, remember the works of Clarke, et.al., in the above letter: “we urge caution in drawing comparisons of the abrupt change 8400 years ago to future scenarios involving, for example, the melting of the GIS [Greenland Ice Sheet] and its relevance to human societies.”

One comment

  1. AGW is based on claims about what CO2 does in the climate system that, when examined closely, turn out to be false each and every time.

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