The transient response of atmospheric and oceanic heat transports to anthropogenic warming


Model projections of the near-future response to anthropogenic warming show compensation between meridional heat transports by the atmosphere (AHT) and ocean (OHT) that are largely symmetric about the equator1,2,3, the causes of which remain unclear. Here, using both the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project Phase 5 archive and Community Climate System Model version 4 simulations forced with Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 to 2600, we show that this transient compensation—specifically during the initial stage of warming—is caused by combined changes in both atmospheric and oceanic circulations. In particular, it is caused by a southward OHT associated with a weakened Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, a northward apparent OHT associated with an ocean heat storage maximum around the Southern Ocean, and a symmetric coupled response of the Hadley and Subtropical cells in the Indo-Pacific basin. It is further shown that the true advective OHT differs from the flux-inferred OHT in the initial warming due to the inhomogeneous responses of ocean heat storage. These results provide new insights to further our understanding of future heat transport responses, and thereby global climatic processes such as the redistribution of ocean heat.

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Fig. 1: Changes in meridional heat transport between an historical CCSM4 run for 1900–2000 and CCSM4 RCP8.5 runs for the twenty-first and twenty-sixth centuries.
Fig. 2: Evolution of climate from the pre-industrial era (1850) to the end of the twenty-sixth century (2600).
Fig. 3: Response of OHT between historical (1900–2000) and twenty-first-century RCP8.5 runs (2006–2100) of the coupled CCSM4 model.
Fig. 4: Ocean heat content and temperature change, as calculated from CCSM4 modelling and observations.

Data availability

The CMIP5 data used in this study can be downloaded from the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison ( The CESM-LE data can be found at The CCSM4 data and the data supporting the findings of this study are available from the corresponding author upon request.


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This work is supported by MOST 2017YFA0603801, NSFC41630527, NSF1656907, NSF1810682 and the Nanjing University of Information Science and Technology. We thank Q. Li and J. Han for a discussion on meridional heat transport calculation in CCSM4, and L. Franchisteguy, A. Voldoire and H. Haak for discussions on meridional heat transport calculations in CMIP5 models. We acknowledge the climate modelling groups for producing model outputs, the Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison for maintaining the CMIP5 data archive from which we drew the data, and the CESM community for providing the CESM-LE product. We also acknowledge the high-performance computing support from NCAR’s Computational and Information Systems Laboratory, sponsored by the National Science Foundation. Portions of this study are supported by the Regional and Global Model Analysis component of the Earth and Environmental System Modeling programme of the US Department of Energy’s Office of Biological and Environmental Research Cooperative Agreement number DE-FC02-97ER62402, and the National Science Foundation. This research also uses resources of the National Energy Research Scientific Computing Center supported by the Office of Science of the US Department of Energy under contract number DE-AC02-05CH11231. Finally, this work could not have been completed without xcesm—a decent Python package ( based on Xarray ( for CESM output diagnosis.

Author information




C.H. and Z.L designed the study. C.H. performed the analysis. A.H. provided CESM simulation data. Z.L. and C.H. wrote the manuscript with input from A.H.

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Correspondence to Chengfei He or Zhengyu Liu.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

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Journal peer review information Nature Climate Change thanks Yen-Ting Hwan and other anonymous reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Supplementary Information

Supplementary Table 1, Supplementary Figures 1–8, Supplementary References

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He, C., Liu, Z. & Hu, A. The transient response of atmospheric and oceanic heat transports to anthropogenic warming. Nat. Clim. Chang. 9, 222–226 (2019).

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