Arctic–Subarctic Ocean Fluxes

pp 87-109

Is Oceanic Heat Transport Significant in the Climate System?

  • Peter RhinesAffiliated withOceanography and Atmospheric Sciences Departments, University of Washington
  • , Sirpa HäkkinenAffiliated withNASA Goddard Space Flight Center
  • , Simon A. JoseyAffiliated withNational Oceanography Centre

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It has long been believed that the transport of heat by the ocean circulation is of importance to atmospheric climate. Circulation of the Atlantic Ocean warms and moistens western Europe, the argument goes, and, because of the pivotal role of the Atlantic/Arctic region, also affects global climate (e.g., Stommel 1979). Indeed, major oceanographic field programs have been launched by many nations, based on this premise. In the US, NOAA issues quarterly assessments of subtropical North Atlantic meridional heat transport ( index.php). Estimates from ocean observations show the annual-mean, northward heat transport by the global circulation to decrease by about 1.5 pW (1015W) between latitudes 25° N and 50° N, with nearly 1 pW of that within the narrow Atlantic sector alone (see Bryden and Imawaki 2001, who estimate the uncertainty of individual section heat transports at 0.3 pW). This effect of the oceanic meridional overturning forces an enormous upward flux of heat and moisture in subtropical latitudes, providing a significant fraction of the zonally integrated atmospheric northward energy flux (which peaks at between 3 and 5.2 pW, as discussed further below). Occurring dominantly in wintertime, oceanic warmth and moisture energize the Pacific and Atlantic storm tracks. Combined action of atmosphere and ocean carries this energy northward, with great impact on all facets of high-latitude climate.