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Opposing decadal changes for the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation

A Corrigendum to this article was published on 14 October 2010

This article has been updated


The hydrographic properties of the North Atlantic Ocean changed significantly from 1950 to 2000: the subtropics warmed and became more saline, whereas the subpolar ocean cooled and freshened. These changes directly affect the storage of heat and fresh water in the ocean, but their consequences for ocean dynamics are determined by the resultant changes in seawater density. Here we use historical hydrographic data to show that the overall seawater density in the North Atlantic basin decreased during this 50-year period. As a result of these density changes, sea-surface heights changed in a spatially varying pattern with typical rates of 2 mm yr−1, in broad agreement with tide-gauge measurements. Melding the observed density fields within a numerical model we find a slight weakening in the overturning of the subtropical gyre by −1.5±1 Sv and a slight strengthening in the overturning of the subpolar gyre by +0.8±0.5 Sv. These gyre-specific changes run counter to the canonical notion of a single, basin-scale overturning cell and probably reflect interannual and decadal trends rather than any long-term climate trend. We conclude that gyre dynamics strongly affect temperature and salinity changes that translate into changes in the meridional overturning circulation.

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Figure 1: Historical hydrographic data analysis.
Figure 2: Spatial fields of temperature, salinity and density changes.
Figure 3: Sea-surface height changes.
Figure 4: Changes in the meridional overturning circulation.
Figure 5: Relationship of MOC changes to observed density field.

Change history

  • 14 October 2010

    In the version of this Letter originally published, "-0.8 ± 0.5 Sv" in the fifth sentence of the abstract should have read "+0.8 ± 0.5 Sv". This error has now been corrected in the HTML and PDF versions of the text.


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The authors gratefully acknowledge support from the US National Science Foundation and the UK Natural Environment Research Council.

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Authors and Affiliations



M.S.L. led the data study and its interpretation and R.G.W. led the modelling study and interpretation. V.R. conducted the modelling study and developed the model-data analysis. M.S.C.R. conducted the historical-data analysis. M.S.L. and R.G.W. jointly wrote the paper.

Corresponding authors

Correspondence to M. Susan Lozier or Richard G. Williams.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Lozier, M., Roussenov, V., Reed, M. et al. Opposing decadal changes for the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. Nature Geosci 3, 728–734 (2010).

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