The underestimated danger of a breakdown of the Gulf Stream System

A new model simulation of the Gulf Stream System shows a breakdown of the gigantic overturning circulating in the Atlantic after a CO2 doubling.

A new study in Science Advances by Wei Liu and colleagues at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in San Diego and the University of Wisconsin-Madison has important implications for the future stability of the overturning circulation in the Atlantic Ocean. They applied a correction to the freshwater fluxes in the Atlantic, in order to better reproduce the salt concentration of ocean waters there. This correction changes the overall salt budget for the Atlantic, also changing the stability of the model’s ocean circulation in future climate change. The Atlantic ocean circulation is relatively stable in the uncorrected model, only declining by about 20% in response to a CO2 doubling, but in the corrected model version it breaks down completely in the centuries following a CO2 doubling, with dramatic consequences for the climate of the Northern Hemisphere.

The potential instability of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or AMOC – commonly known as the Gulf Stream System – has been a subject of research since the 1980s, when Wallace Broecker warned in an essay in Nature of Unpleasant Surprises in the Greenhouse. The reason for this was growing evidence of abrupt climate changes in the history of the Earth due to instability of Atlantic currents.

Fig. 1 Schematic of the Atlantic ocean circulation (simplified). In red the relatively warm surface flow is seen, in blue the cold deep water flow. The northward surface flow and southward deep flow together make up the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), popularly dubbed Gulf Stream System. Image by S. Rahmstorf (Nature 1997), Creative Commons BY-SA 4.0. 

Why the AMOC has a tipping point

The basic physical mechanism of this instability was already described by Henry Stommel in 1961. The freshwater balance (precipitation minus evaporation), which determines the salt content, is central to this. Freshwater continually flows into the northern Atlantic through precipitation, rivers and ice-melting. But supply of salty waters from the south, through the Gulf Stream System, balances this. If however the current slows, there is less salt supply, and the surface ocean gets less salty. This fresher water is lighter than saltier water and therefore cannot sink into the depths so easily. Since this sinking – the so-called deep water formation – drives the Gulf Stream System, the current continues to weaken. There is a critical point when this becomes an unstoppable vicious circle. This is one of the classic tipping points in the climate system.

However, it’s still unclear where exactly this tipping point is. Most models show a significant slowdown in the Gulf Stream System by 20% to 50% in typical global warming scenarios up to the year 2100, but do not exceed the tipping point that would lead to its collapse. However, there is a large spread between different models – which is not surprising since the stability of the Atlantic flow depends on a subtle balance in the salinity and thus also in the freshwater budget, which is only inaccurately known. In addition, there have long been serious indications that the models are not only inaccurate, but perhaps all systematically biased towards an exceedingly stable AMOC. We discussed these papers in a review article in PNAS in 2009.

What makes the new study different?

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  1. W.S. Broecker, "Unpleasant surprises in the greenhouse?", Nature, vol. 328, pp. 123-126, 1987.
  2. H. STOMMEL, "Thermohaline Convection with Two Stable Regimes of Flow", Tellus, vol. 13, pp. 224-230, 1961.
  3. T.M. Lenton, H. Held, E. Kriegler, J.W. Hall, W. Lucht, S. Rahmstorf, and H.J. Schellnhuber, "Tipping elements in the Earth's climate system", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 105, pp. 1786-1793, 2008.
  4. M. Hofmann, and S. Rahmstorf, "On the stability of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation", Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, vol. 106, pp. 20584-20589, 2009.