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Blizzard Jonas and the slowdown of the Gulf Stream System

Filed under: — stefan @ 24 January 2016

Blizzard Jonas on the US east coast has just shattered snowfall records. Both weather forecasters and climate experts have linked the high snowfall amounts to the exceptionally warm sea surface temperatures off the east coast. In this post I will examine a related question: why are sea surface temperatures so high there, as shown in the snapshot from Climate Reanalyzer below?



I will argue that this warmth (as well as the cold blob in the subpolar Atlantic) is partly due to a slowdown of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), sometimes referred to as the Gulf Stream System, in response to global warming. There are two points to this argument:

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Reflections on Ringberg

As previewed last weekend, I spent most of last week at a workshop on Climate Sensitivity hosted by the Max Planck Institute at Schloss Ringberg. It was undoubtedly one of the better workshops I’ve attended – it was focussed, deep and with much new information to digest (some feel for the discussion can be seen from the #ringberg15 tweets). I’ll give a brief overview of my impressions below.

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A hypothesis about the cold winter in eastern North America + Update

Filed under: — stefan @ 30 March 2015

The past winter was globally the warmest on record. At the same time it set a new cold record in the subpolar North Atlantic – and it was very cold in the eastern parts of North America. Are these things related?

Two weeks ago NOAA published the following map of temperature anomalies for the past December-January-February (i.e. the Northern Hemisphere winter). One week ago, we published a paper in Nature Climate Change (which had been in the works for a few years) arguing that the cold in the subpolar North Atlantic is indicative of an AMOC slowdown (as discussed in my last post). Immediately our readers started to ask (as we indeed had been asking ourselves): does the cold winter in eastern North America (culminating in the Inhofe snowball incident) have anything to do with what is going on in the Atlantic?

Winter15NOAAFig. 1 Temperature anomaly map for the past december-january-february, from NOAA.

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  1. S. Rahmstorf, J.E. Box, G. Feulner, M.E. Mann, A. Robinson, S. Rutherford, and E.J. Schaffernicht, "Exceptional twentieth-century slowdown in Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation", Nature Climate Change, vol. 5, pp. 475-480, 2015.

A new sea level curve

Filed under: — stefan @ 14 January 2015

The “zoo” of global sea level curves calculated from tide gauge data has grown – tomorrow a new reconstruction of our US colleagues around Carling Hay from Harvard University will appear in Nature (Hay et al. 2015). That is a good opportunity for an overview over the available data curves. The differences are really in the details, the “big picture” of sea-level rise does not change. In all curves, the current rates of rise are the highest since records began.

The following graph shows the new sea level curve as compared to six known ones.


Fig 1 Sea level curves calculated by different research groups with various methods. The curves show the sea level relative to the satellite era (since 1992). Graph: Klaus Bittermann.

All curves show the well-known modern sea level rise, but the exact extent and time evolution of the rise differ somewhat. Up to about 1970, the new reconstruction of Hay et al. runs at the top of the existing uncertainty range. For the period from 1880 AD, however, it shows the same total increase as the current favorites by Church & White. Starting from 1900 AD it is about 25 mm less. This difference is at the margins of significance: the uncertainty ranges overlap. More »


  1. C.C. Hay, E. Morrow, R.E. Kopp, and J.X. Mitrovica, "Probabilistic reanalysis of twentieth-century sea-level rise", Nature, vol. 517, pp. 481-484, 2015.

Diagnosing Causes of Sea Level Rise

Filed under: — eric @ 8 January 2015

Guest post by Sarah G. Purkey and Gregory C. Johnson,
University of Washington / NOAA

I solicited this post from colleagues at the University of Washington. I found their paper particularly interesting because it gets at the question of sea level rise from a combination of ocean altimetry and density (temperature + salinity) data. This kind of measurement and calculation has not really been possible — not at this level of detail — until quite recently. A key finding is that one can reconcile various different estimates of the contributions to observed sea level rise only if the significant warming of the deep ocean is accounted for. There was a good write-up in The Guardian back when the paper came out.– Eric Steig

Sea leave rise reveals a lot about our changing climate. A rise in the mean sea level can be caused by decreases in ocean density, mostly reflecting an increase in ocean temperature — this is steric sea level rise. It can also be caused by an increase in ocean mass, reflecting a gain of fresh water from land. A third, and smaller, contribution to mean sea level is from glacial isostatic adjustment. The contribution of glacial isostatic adjustment, while small, has a range of possible values and can be a significant source of uncertainty in sea level budgets. Over recent decades, very roughly half of the observed mean sea level rise is owing to changes in ocean density with the other half owing to the increased in ocean mass, mostly from melting glaciers and polar ice sheets. The exact proportion has been difficult to pin down with great certainty. More »


  1. S.G. Purkey, G.C. Johnson, and D.P. Chambers, "Relative contributions of ocean mass and deep steric changes to sea level rise between 1993 and 2013", J. Geophys. Res. Oceans, vol. 119, pp. 7509-7522, 2014.

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