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date: 23 April 2017

Predictability of Decadal Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation Variations

This is an advance summary of a forthcoming article in the Oxford Research Encyclopedia of Climate Science. Please check back later for the full article.

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is a large, basin scale circulation located in the Atlantic Ocean and transporting climatically important quantities of heat northward. It can be described schematically as a northward flow in the warm upper ocean and a southward return flow at depth, in much colder water. Because of the dominance of oceanic heat content in Earth’s energy storage (the heat capacity of a layer of 2 m of seawater is equivalent to that of the entire atmosphere) and its typical slow decadal variations, the AMOC regulates North Atlantic climate and contributes to the relatively mild climate of Europe. Because of the AMOC’s influence on climate, predicting its variations is crucial for predicting climate variations in regions bordering the North Atlantic. Similar to weather predictions, climate predictions are based on numerical simulations of the climate system. However providing accurate predictions on such long timescales is far from straightforward. Even in a perfect model approach, where biases between numerical models and reality are ignored, the chaotic nature of AMOC variability (i.e., high sensitivity to initial conditions) is a significant source of uncertainty, limiting its accuracy of prediction.

Predictability studies focus on factors determining our ability to predict the AMOC rather than on the actual predictions. To this end, processes affecting AMOC predictability can be separated into two categories: processes acting as a source of predictability (periodic harmonic oscillations, for instance) and processes acting as a source of uncertainty (small errors that grow and significantly modify the outcome of numerical simulations). To understand the former category, harmonic modes of variability or precursors of AMOC variations are identified. However, in a perfect model approach, the sources of uncertainty are characterized by the spread of numerical simulations differentiated by the application of small differences to their initial conditions. Two alternative and complementary frameworks have arisen to investigate this spread. The pragmatic framework corresponds to performing an ensemble of simulations, by imposing a randomly chosen small error on the initial conditions of individual simulations. This allows a probabilistic approach and the means to statistically characterize the importance of the initial condition by evaluating the spread of the ensemble. The theoretical framework uses stability analysis to identify small perturbations to the initial conditions that are conducive to significant disruption of the AMOC.