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Different magnitudes of projected subsurface ocean warming around Greenland and Antarctica


The observed acceleration of outlet glaciers and ice flows in Greenland and Antarctica is closely linked to ocean warming, especially in the subsurface layer1,2,3,4,5. Accurate projections of ice-sheet dynamics and global sea-level rise therefore require information of future ocean warming in the vicinity of the large ice sheets. Here we use a set of 19 state-of-the-art climate models to quantify this ocean warming in the next two centuries. We find that in response to a mid-range increase in atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations, the subsurface oceans surrounding the two polar ice sheets at depths of 200–500 m warm substantially compared with the observed changes thus far6,7,8. Model projections suggest that over the course of the twenty-first century, the maximum ocean warming around Greenland will be almost double the global mean, with a magnitude of 1.7–2.0 °C. By contrast, ocean warming around Antarctica will be only about half as large as global mean warming, with a magnitude of 0.5–0.6 °C. A more detailed evaluation indicates that ocean warming is controlled by different mechanisms around Greenland and Antarctica. We conclude that projected subsurface ocean warming could drive significant increases in ice-mass loss, and heighten the risk of future large sea-level rise.

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Figure 1: Recent observed and ensemble mean projections of subsurface (200–500 m) ocean temperatures under the A1B scenario.
Figure 2: Projections of subsurface ocean warming during 2091–2100 and 2191–2200 under the A1B scenario.
Figure 3: Ocean warming as a function of depth.
Figure 4: Changes of ocean surface heat flux and ocean heat transport (TW).

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We thank J. Gregory for constructive comments and many others at GFDL for carrying out the AR4/CMIP3 integrations. We also thank the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI) for data archiving.

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J.Y. initiated the study, performed data analysis and led the writing of the paper. J.T.O. and J.L.R. contributed expertise on palaeoclimate, ocean circulation and ice-sheet melt. S.M.G. and R.J.S. contributed to the GFDL climate model experiments. A.H. contributed to the NCAR climate model experiments. All authors contributed to discussion, interpretation of the results and writing of the manuscript.

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Correspondence to Jianjun Yin.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Yin, J., Overpeck, J., Griffies, S. et al. Different magnitudes of projected subsurface ocean warming around Greenland and Antarctica. Nature Geosci 4, 524–528 (2011).

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