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Concept: North Atlantic Deep Water


Despite numerous investigations, the dynamical origins of the Medieval Climate Anomaly and the Little Ice Age remain uncertain. A major unresolved issue relating to internal climate dynamics is the mode and tempo of Atlantic meridional overturning circulation variability, and the significance of decadal-to-centennial scale changes in Atlantic meridional overturning circulation strength in regulating the climate of the last millennium. Here we use the time-constrained high-resolution local radiocarbon reservoir age offset derived from an absolutely dated annually resolved shell chronology spanning the past 1,350 years, to reconstruct changes in surface ocean circulation and climate. The water mass tracer data presented here from the North Icelandic shelf, combined with previously published data from the Arctic and subtropical Atlantic, show that surface Atlantic meridional overturning circulation dynamics likely amplified the relatively warm conditions during the Medieval Climate Anomaly and the relatively cool conditions during the Little Ice Age within the North Atlantic sector.

Concepts: Earth, Climate, Atlantic Ocean, Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Greenland, Thermohaline circulation, North Atlantic Deep Water


The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC)-a system of ocean currents in the North Atlantic-has a major impact on climate, yet its evolution during the industrial era is poorly known owing to a lack of direct current measurements. Here we provide evidence for a weakening of the AMOC by about 3 ± 1 sverdrups (around 15 per cent) since the mid-twentieth century. This weakening is revealed by a characteristic spatial and seasonal sea-surface temperature ‘fingerprint’-consisting of a pattern of cooling in the subpolar Atlantic Ocean and warming in the Gulf Stream region-and is calibrated through an ensemble of model simulations from the CMIP5 project. We find this fingerprint both in a high-resolution climate model in response to increasing atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, and in the temperature trends observed since the late nineteenth century. The pattern can be explained by a slowdown in the AMOC and reduced northward heat transport, as well as an associated northward shift of the Gulf Stream. Comparisons with recent direct measurements from the RAPID project and several other studies provide a consistent depiction of record-low AMOC values in recent years.

Concepts: Carbon dioxide, Earth, Climate, Atlantic Ocean, Thermohaline circulation, North Atlantic Deep Water, Gulf Stream, North Atlantic Current


The supply of freshwater to fjord systems in Greenland is increasing as a result of climate change-induced acceleration in ice sheet melt. However, insight into the marine implications of the melt water is impaired by lack of observations demonstrating the fate of freshwater along the Greenland coast and providing evaluation basis for ocean models. Here we present 13 years of summer measurements along a 120 km transect in Young Sound, Northeast Greenland and show that sub-surface coastal waters are decreasing in salinity with an average rate of 0.12 ± 0.05 per year. This is the first observational evidence of a significant freshening on decadal scale of the waters surrounding the ice sheet and comes from a region where ice sheet melt has been less significant. It implies that ice sheet dynamics in Northeast Greenland could be of key importance as freshwater is retained in southward flowing coastal currents thus reducing density of water masses influencing major deep water formation areas in the Subarctic Atlantic Ocean. Ultimately, the observed freshening could have implications for the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation.

Concepts: Water, Climate, Atlantic Ocean, Climate change, Arctic Ocean, Antarctica, Greenland, North Atlantic Deep Water


The subpolar North Atlantic is a key location for the Earth’s climate system. In the Labrador Sea, intense winter air-sea heat exchange drives the formation of deep waters and the surface circulation of warm waters around the subpolar gyre. This process therefore has the ability to modulate the oceanic northward heat transport. Recent studies reveal decadal variability in the formation of Labrador Sea Water. Yet, crucially, its longer-term history and links with European climate remain limited. Here we present new decadally resolved marine proxy reconstructions, which suggest weakened Labrador Sea Water formation and gyre strength with similar timing to the centennial cold periods recorded in terrestrial climate archives and historical records over the last 3000 years. These new data support that subpolar North Atlantic circulation changes, likely forced by increased southward flow of Arctic waters, contributed to modulating the climate of Europe with important societal impacts as revealed in European history.

Concepts: Water, Earth, Climate, Atlantic Ocean, Europe, Ocean, Thermohaline circulation, North Atlantic Deep Water


The Younger Dryas-the last major cold episode on Earth-is generally considered to have been triggered by a meltwater flood into the North Atlantic. The prevailing hypothesis, proposed by Broecker et al. [1989 Nature 341:318-321] more than two decades ago, suggests that an abrupt rerouting of Lake Agassiz overflow through the Great Lakes and St. Lawrence Valley inhibited deep water formation in the subpolar North Atlantic and weakened the strength of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). More recently, Tarasov and Peltier [2005 Nature 435:662-665] showed that meltwater could have discharged into the Arctic Ocean via the Mackenzie Valley ∼4,000 km northwest of the St. Lawrence outlet. Here we use a sophisticated, high-resolution, ocean sea-ice model to study the delivery of meltwater from the two drainage outlets to the deep water formation regions in the North Atlantic. Unlike the hypothesis of Broecker et al., freshwater from the St. Lawrence Valley advects into the subtropical gyre ∼3,000 km south of the North Atlantic deep water formation regions and weakens the AMOC by <15%. In contrast, narrow coastal boundary currents efficiently deliver meltwater from the Mackenzie Valley to the deep water formation regions of the subpolar North Atlantic and weaken the AMOC by >30%. We conclude that meltwater discharge from the Arctic, rather than the St. Lawrence Valley, was more likely to have triggered the Younger Dryas cooling.

Concepts: Atlantic Ocean, Canada, Arctic Ocean, Antarctica, Thermohaline circulation, Younger Dryas, North Atlantic Deep Water, Lake Agassiz


Observed Atlantic major hurricane frequency has exhibited pronounced multidecadal variability since the 1940s. However, the cause of this variability is debated. Using observations and a coupled earth system model (GFDL-ESM2G), here we show that the decline of the Atlantic major hurricane frequency during 2005-2015 is associated with a weakening of the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) inferred from ocean observations. Directly observed North Atlantic sulfate aerosol optical depth has not increased (but shows a modest decline) over this period, suggesting the decline of the Atlantic major hurricane frequency during 2005-2015 is not likely due to recent changes in anthropogenic sulfate aerosols. Instead, we find coherent multidecadal variations involving the inferred AMOC and Atlantic major hurricane frequency, along with indices of Atlantic Multidecadal Variability and inverted vertical wind shear. Our results provide evidence for an important role of the AMOC in the recent decline of Atlantic major hurricane frequency.

Concepts: Earth, Atlantic Ocean, Climate change, Tropical cyclone, Wind, Antarctica, Thermohaline circulation, North Atlantic Deep Water


The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is an important component of ocean thermohaline circulation. Melting of Greenland’s ice sheet is freshening the North Atlantic; however, whether the augmented freshwater flux is disrupting the AMOC is unclear. Dense Labrador Sea Water (LSW), formed by winter cooling of saline North Atlantic water and subsequent convection, is a key component of the deep southward return flow of the AMOC. Although LSW formation recently decreased, it also reached historically high values in the mid-1990s, making the connection to the freshwater flux unclear. Here we derive a new estimate of the recent freshwater flux from Greenland using updated GRACE satellite data, present new flux estimates for heat and salt from the North Atlantic into the Labrador Sea and explain recent variations in LSW formation. We suggest that changes in LSW can be directly linked to recent freshening, and suggest a possible link to AMOC weakening.

Concepts: Earth, Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Antarctica, Thermohaline circulation, Younger Dryas, North Atlantic Deep Water, Gulf Stream


The early Pliocene shoaling of the Central American Seaway (CAS), ~4.7-4.2 million years ago (mega annum-Ma), is thought to have strengthened Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC). The associated increase in northward flux of heat and moisture may have significantly influenced the evolution of Pliocene climate. While some evidence for the predicted increase in North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) formation exists in the Caribbean and Western Atlantic, similar evidence is missing in the wider Atlantic. Here, we present stable carbon (δ(13)C) and oxygen (δ(18)O) isotope records from the Southeast Atlantic-a key region for monitoring the southern extent of NADW. Using these data, together with other δ(13)C and δ(18)O records from the Atlantic, we assess the impact of the early Pliocene CAS shoaling phase on deep-water circulation. We find that NADW formation was vigorous prior to 4.7 Ma and showed limited subsequent change. Hence, the overall structure of the deep Atlantic was largely unaffected by the early Pliocene CAS shoaling, corroborating other evidence that indicates larger changes in NADW resulted from earlier and deeper shoaling phases. This finding implies that the early Pliocene shoaling of the CAS had no profound impact on the evolution of climate.

Concepts: Earth, Atlantic Ocean, Caribbean Sea, Caribbean, Antarctica, Thermohaline circulation, North Atlantic Deep Water, Gulf Stream


Changes in deep ocean ventilation are commonly invoked as the primary cause of lower glacial atmospheric CO2. The water mass structure of the glacial deep Atlantic Ocean and the mechanism by which it may have sequestered carbon remain elusive. Here we present neodymium isotope measurements from cores throughout the Atlantic that reveal glacial-interglacial changes in water mass distributions. These results demonstrate the sustained production of North Atlantic Deep Water under glacial conditions, indicating that southern-sourced waters were not as spatially extensive during the Last Glacial Maximum as previously believed. We demonstrate that the depleted glacial δ(13)C values in the deep Atlantic Ocean cannot be explained solely by water mass source changes. A greater amount of respired carbon, therefore, must have been stored in the abyssal Atlantic during the Last Glacial Maximum. We infer that this was achieved by a sluggish deep overturning cell, comprised of well-mixed northern- and southern-sourced waters.

Concepts: Water, Earth, Atlantic Ocean, Baltic Sea, Ocean, Antarctica, Last glacial period, North Atlantic Deep Water


Extreme, abrupt Northern Hemisphere climate oscillations during the last glacial cycle (140,000 years ago to present) were modulated by changes in ocean circulation and atmospheric forcing. However, the variability of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC), which has a role in controlling heat transport from low to high latitudes and in ocean CO2 storage, is still poorly constrained beyond the Last Glacial Maximum. Here we show that a deep and vigorous overturning circulation mode has persisted for most of the last glacial cycle, dominating ocean circulation in the Atlantic, whereas a shallower glacial mode with southern-sourced waters filling the deep western North Atlantic prevailed during glacial maxima. Our results are based on a reconstruction of both the strength and the direction of the AMOC during the last glacial cycle from a highly resolved marine sedimentary record in the deep western North Atlantic. Parallel measurements of two independent chemical water tracers (the isotope ratios of (231)Pa/(230)Th and (143)Nd/(144)Nd), which are not directly affected by changes in the global cycle, reveal consistent responses of the AMOC during the last two glacial terminations. Any significant deviations from this configuration, resulting in slowdowns of the AMOC, were restricted to centennial-scale excursions during catastrophic iceberg discharges of the Heinrich stadials. Severe and multicentennial weakening of North Atlantic Deep Water formation occurred only during Heinrich stadials close to glacial maxima with increased ice coverage, probably as a result of increased fresh-water input. In contrast, the AMOC was relatively insensitive to submillennial meltwater pulses during warmer climate states, and an active AMOC prevailed during Dansgaard-Oeschger interstadials (Greenland warm periods).

Concepts: Water, Earth, Climate, Atlantic Ocean, Arctic Ocean, Antarctica, North Atlantic Deep Water, Gulf Stream