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The role of the thermohaline circulation in abrupt climate change

Abstract

The possibility of a reduced Atlantic thermohaline circulation in response to increases in greenhouse-gas concentrations has been demonstrated in a number of simulations with general circulation models of the coupled ocean–atmosphere system. But it remains difficult to assess the likelihood of future changes in the thermohaline circulation, mainly owing to poorly constrained model parameterizations and uncertainties in the response of the climate system to greenhouse warming. Analyses of past abrupt climate changes help to solve these problems. Data and models both suggest that abrupt climate change during the last glaciation originated through changes in the Atlantic thermohaline circulation in response to small changes in the hydrological cycle. Atmospheric and oceanic responses to these changes were then transmitted globally through a number of feedbacks. The palaeoclimate data and the model results also indicate that the stability of the thermohaline circulation depends on the mean climate state.

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Figure 1: Comparison of record of linearly detrended Δ14Catm to 10Be flux data from the GISP2 ice core.
Figure 2: Comparison of reconstructed forcings and responses in the Atlantic basin during the last deglaciation (11–22 kyr bp).
Figure 3: Time-history of the first two empirical orthogonal functions (EOFs) determined from 18 time series.
Figure 4: The spatial pattern of the first two empirical orthogonal functions extracted from the data set (see Fig. 3a).

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Acknowledgements

We thank G. Bond, J. Jouzel, A. Mix, R. Muscheler, J. Sachs and J. van der Plicht for providing data, the NOAA-NGDC Paleoclimate Program for their data repository, and S. Hostetler, A. Mix, A. Schmittner and R. Stouffer for comments. This work was supported by grants from the Earth System History Program of the US NSF (P.U.C. and N.G.P.), the Swiss NSF (T.F.S.) and the Canadian NSERC (A.J.W.).

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Clark, P., Pisias, N., Stocker, T. et al. The role of the thermohaline circulation in abrupt climate change. Nature 415, 863–869 (2002). https://doi.org/10.1038/415863a

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