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Century-scale effects of increased atmospheric C02 on the ocean–atmosphere system


SEVERAL studies have addressed the likely effects of CO2-induced climate change over the coming decades1–10, but the longer-term effects have received less attention. Yet these effects could be very significant, as persistent increases in global mean temperatures may ultimately influence the large-scale processes in the coupled ocean–atmosphere system that are thought to play a central part in determining global climate. The thermohaline circulation is one such process—Broecker has argued11 that it may have undergone abrupt changes in response to rising temperatures and ice-sheet melting at the end of the last glacial period. Here we use a coupled ocean-atmosphere climate model to study the evolution of the world's climate over the next few centuries, driven by doubling and quadrupling of the concentration of atmospheric CO2. We find that the global mean surface air temperature increases by about 3.5 and 7 °C, respectively, over 500 years, and that sea-level rise owing to thermal expansion alone is about 1 and 2 m respectively (ice-sheet melting could make these values much larger). The thermal and dynamical structure of the oceans changes markedly in the quadrupled-CO2 climate—in particular, the ocean settles into a new stable state in which the thermohaline circulation has ceased entirely and the thermocline deepens substantially. These changes prevent the ventilation of the deep ocean and could have a profound impact on the carbon cycle and biogeochemistry of the coupled system.

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Manabe, S., Stouffer, R. Century-scale effects of increased atmospheric C02 on the ocean–atmosphere system. Nature 364, 215–218 (1993).

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