Let’s compare two possibilities by a back-of-envelope calculation.
(1) Is it due to a reduced heat transport of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC)?
(2) Or is it simply due to the influx of cold meltwater as the Greenland Ice Sheet is losing ice?
The latter is often suggested. The meltwater also contributes indirectly to slowing the AMOC, but not because it is cold but because it is freshwater (not saline), which contributes to the first option (i.e. AMOC decline).
AMOC heat transport
For that we take the AMOC flow rate times the temperature difference of 15 °C between the northward upper branch and southward deep return flow to obtain the heat transport.
17,000,000 m3/s x 15 K x 1025 kg/m3 x 4 kJ/kgK = 1 PW (1)
(Here, 1 PW = 1015 Watt and 4 kJ/kgK is the heat capacity of water.)
An AMOC weakening by 15 % thus cools the region at a rate of 0.15 PW = 1.5 x 1014 W and according to model simulations can fully explain the observed cooling trend (2). Of course, this slowdown is not only due to Greenland meltwater – other factors like increasing precipitation probably play a larger role, but the impact of Greenland melting is not negligible, as we argue in (3).
Greenland ice melt
Here we start by taking the Greenland mass loss rate into the ocean, times the temperature difference between the meltwater and the water it replaces. Note we are interested in the longer-term temperature trend over decades over the region with the meltwater properly mixed in, not at some temporary patches of meltwater floating locally at the surface.
Total Greenland mass loss has been on average 270 Gt/year for the last two decades (4).
Most of that evaporates though, and what ends up in the ocean of this, according to a recent study by Jason Box (5), is around 100 Gt/year, about 30% of which in form of ice and 70% in form of meltwater.
100 Gt/year = 3000 tons/second – that sounds a lot but the AMOC flow is more than 5000 times larger.
Assuming the ice and meltwater runoff occurs at 0 °C and replaces water that is 10 °C (a very high assumption corresponding to summer conditions and not the long-term average), the cooling rate is:
3,000,000 kg/s x 10 K x 4 kJ/kgK = 1.2 x 1011 W
So in comparison, the cooling effect of a 15 % AMOC slowdown is over 1,000 times larger than the direct cooling effect of the Greenland meltwater.
For the part entering the ocean as ice, we must also consider that to melt ice requires energy. The heat of fusion of water is 334 kJ/kg so that adds 900 tons/s x 334 kJ/kg = 3 x 1011 W.
So it turns out that those suggesting that ‘cold’ meltwater might cause the cold blob in the northern Atlantic are doubly wrong: if we talk about the direct impact of stuff coming off Greenland, than ice is the dominant factor and the energy that’s required to melt the ice. But both the direct effect of meltwater and of icebergs entering the ocean are completely dwarfed by the weakening of the AMOC (regardless of whether we take the numbers of Box et al. or other estimates). And Greenland’s contribution to that is not because the meltwater is ‘cold’, but because it is fresh – it contains no salt and dilutes the saltiness of the ocean water, thereby reducing its density.
As an additional observation: the cooling patch shown above often vanishes in summer, covered up by a warm surface layer – just when the Greenland melt season is on – only to resurface when deeper mixing starts in autumn. Which again supports the idea that it is not due to a direct effect of cold meltwater influx. Also compare the temperature change directly at the Greenland coast, where the meltwater enters, in the image above.
Finally, some have suggested that the cold blob south of Greenland has been caused by increased heat loss to the atmosphere. That of course is relevant for short-term weather variability – if a cold wind blows over the ocean it will of course cool the surface – but I do not think it can explain the long-term trend, as we discussed earlier here at Realclimate.
1. Trenberth, K. E. & Fasullo, J. T. (2017) Atlantic meridional heat transports computed from balancing Earth’s energy locally, Geophys. Res. Let. 44: 1919-1927.
2. Caesar, L., Rahmstorf, S., Robinson, A., Feulner, G., & Saba, V. (2018) Observed fingerprint of a weakening Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation, Nature 556: 191-196.
3. Rahmstorf, S., J.E. Box, G. Feulner, M.E. Mann, A. Robinson, S. Rutherford, and E.J. Schaffernicht, 2015: Exceptional twentieth-century slowdown in Atlantic Ocean overturning circulation. Nature Climate Change, 5, 475–480, doi:10.1038/nclimate2554.
4. NASA Vital Signs, https://climate.nasa.gov/vital-signs/ice-sheets/
5. Box, J. E., et al. (2022), Greenland ice sheet climate disequilibrium and committed sea-level rise, Nature Clim. Change, 12(9), 808-813, doi: 10.1038/s41558-022-01