Climate Dynamics

, Volume 36, Issue 5–6, pp 1107–1118 | Cite as

Reversed North Atlantic gyre dynamics in present and glacial climates

  • Marisa MontoyaEmail author
  • Andreas Born
  • Anders Levermann


The dynamics of the North Atlantic subpolar gyre (SPG) are assessed under present and glacial boundary conditions by investigating the SPG sensitivity to surface wind-stress changes in a coupled climate model. To this end, the gyre transport is decomposed in Ekman, thermohaline, and bottom transports. Surface wind-stress variations are found to play an important indirect role in SPG dynamics through their effect on water-mass densities. Our results suggest the existence of two dynamically distinct regimes of the SPG, depending on the absence or presence of deep water formation (DWF) in the Nordic Seas and a vigorous Greenland–Scotland ridge (GSR) overflow. In the first regime, the GSR overflow is weak and the SPG strength increases with wind-stress as a result of enhanced outcropping of isopycnals in the centre of the SPG. As soon as a vigorous GSR overflow is established, its associated positive density anomalies on the southern GSR slope reduce the SPG strength. This has implications for past glacial abrupt climate changes, insofar as these can be explained through latitudinal shifts in North Atlantic DWF sites and strengthening of the North Atlantic current. Regardless of the ultimate trigger, an abrupt shift of DWF into the Nordic Seas could result both in a drastic reduction of the SPG strength and a sudden reversal in its sensitivity to wind-stress variations. Our results could provide insight into changes in the horizontal ocean circulation during abrupt glacial climate changes, which have been largely neglected up to now in model studies.


Atlantic Meridional Overturn Circulation Deep Water Formation North Atlantic Current Atlantic Meridional Overturn Circulation Strength Meridional Density Gradient 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


  1. Böning C, Scheinert M, Dengg J, Biastoch A, Funk A (2006) Decadal variability of subpolar gyre transport and its reverberation in the North Atlantic overturning. Geophys Res Lett 33:L21S01CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  2. Born A, Levermann A, Mignot J (2009a) Sensitivity of the Atlantic circulation to a hydraulic overflow parameterization in a coarse resolution model. Ocean Modelling 27:132–140CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  3. Born A, Nisancioglu K, Braconnot P (2009b) Sea ice induced changes in ocean circulation during the Eemian. Climate Dynamics. doi: 10.1007/s00382-009-0709-2
  4. Bryan F, Böning C, Holland W (1995) On the midlatitude circulation in a high-resolution model of the North Atlantic. J Phys Oceanogr 25(3):289–305CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  5. Crowley TJ, North GR (1991) Paleoclimatology. Oxford University Press, New York, p 349Google Scholar
  6. Curry R, McCartney M, Joyce T (1998) Oceanic transport of subpolar climate signals to mid-depth subtropical waters. Nature 391:575–577CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. Eden C, Willebrand J (2001) Mechanism of interannual to decadal variability of the North Atlantic circulation. J Clim 14:2266–2280CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  8. Fichefet T, Maqueda MAM (1997) Sensitivity of a global sea ice model to the treatment of ice thermodynamics and dynamics. J Geophys Res 102:12609–12646CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  9. Fofonoff NP (1962) The Sea. In: Hill MN (ed) Dynamics of ocean currents, vol I. Interscience, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  10. Ganachaud A, Wunsch C (2000) Improved estimates of global ocean circulation, heat transport and mixing from hydrographic data. Nature 48: 453–457CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  11. Ganopolski A, Rahmstorf S (2001) Rapid changes of glacial climate simulated in a coupled climate model. Nature 409:153–158CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  12. Greatbatch R, Fanning A, Goulding A, Levitus S (1991) A diagnosis of interpentadal circulation changes in the North Atlantic. J Geophys Res 96:22009–22023CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  13. Häkkinen S, Rhines PB (2004) Decline of subpolar North Atlantic circulation during the 1990s. Science 304:555–559CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  14. Hátún H, Sando A, Drange H, Hansen B, Valdimarsson H (2005) Influence of the Atlantic subpolar gyre on the thermohaline circulation. Science 309:1841–1844CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  15. Hewitt CD, Stouffer RJ, Broccoli AJ, Mitchell JFB, Valdes PJ (2003) The effect of ocean dynamics in a coupled GCM simulation of the Last Glacial Maximum. Clim Dyn 20:203–218Google Scholar
  16. Kuhlbrodt T, Griesel A, Montoya M, Levermann A, Hofmann M, Rahmstorf S (2007) On the driving processes of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. Rev Geophys 45:RG2001CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  17. Levermann A, Born A (2007) Bistability of the subpolar gyre in a coarse resolution climate model. Geophys Res Lett 34:L24605CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  18. Mellor GL (1996) Introduction to physical oceanography. Princeton UniversityGoogle Scholar
  19. Mellor G, Mechoso C, Keto E (1982) A diagnostic calculation of the general circulation of the Atlantic Ocean. Deep Sea Res 29:1171–1192CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  20. Montoya M, Griesel A, Levermann A, Mignot J, Hofmann M, Ganopolski A, Rahmstorf S (2005) The Earth system model of intermediate complexity CLIMBER-3α. Part I: description and performance for present day conditions. Clim Dyn 25:237–263CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  21. Montoya M, Levermann A (2008) Surface wind-stress threshold for glacial atlantic overturning. Geophys Res Lett 35:L03608. doi: 10.1029/2007GL032,560 CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  22. Myers P, Fanning A, Weaver A (1996) Jebar, bottom pressure torque, and gulf stream separation. J Phys Oceanogr 26:671–683CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  23. Otto-Bliesner B, Brady E, Tomas R, Levis S, Kothavala Z (2006) Last Glacial Maximum and Holocene climate in CCSM3. J Clim 19:2526–2544CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  24. Peltier WR (2004) Global glacial isostasy and the surface of the ice-age Earth: the ICE-5G(VM 2) model and GRACE. Annu Rev Earth Planet Sci 32(1):111–149CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  25. Penduff T, Barnier B, de Verdière AC (2000) Self-adapting open boundaries for a sigma coordinate model of the eastern North Atlantic. J Geophys Res 105:11279–11298CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  26. Petoukhov V, Ganopolski A, Brovkin V, Claussen M, Eliseev A, Kubatzki C, Rahmstorf S (2000) CLIMBER-2: a climate system model of intermediate complexity. Part I: model description and performance for present climate. Clim Dyn 16:1–17CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  27. Rahmstorf S (1996) On the freshwater forcing and transport of the Atlantic thermohaline circulation. Clim Dyn 12:799–811CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  28. Rahmstorf S (2002) Ocean circulation and climate during the past 120,000 years. Nature 419:207–214CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. Talley LD, Reid JL, Robbins PE (2003) Data-based meridional overturning streamfunctions for the global ocean. J Clim 16:3213–3226CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  30. Thornalley D, Elderfield H, McCave N (2009) Holocene Oscillations in the temperature and salinity of the surface subpolar North Atlantic. Nature 457:711–714CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. Toggweiler J, Russell J (2008) Ocean circulation in a warming climate. Nature 451:286-288CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  32. Toggweiler JR, Samuels B (1998) On the ocean’s large scale circulation in the limit of no vertical mixing. J Phys Oceanogr 28:1832–1852CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  33. Treguier AM, Theetten S, Chassignet E, Penduff T, Smith R, Talley L, Beismann J, Böning C (2005) The North Atlantic subpolar gyre in four high-resolution models. J Clim 35:757–774Google Scholar
  34. Trenberth K, Olson J, Large W (1989) A global ocean wind stress climatology based on ECMWF analyses. Tech. Rep. NCAR/TN-338+STR, National Center for Atmospheric Research, Boulder, Colorado, USAGoogle Scholar
  35. Wijffels SE, Meyers G, Godfrey JS (2008) A 20-yr average of the Indonesian throughflow: regional currents and the interbasin exchange. J Phys Oceanogr 38:1965–1978CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. Wunsch C (1998) The work done by the wind on the oceanic general circulation. J Phys Oceanogr 28:2332–2340CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  37. Wunsch C, Ferrari R (2004) Vertical mixing, energy and the general circulation of the oceans. Annu Rev Fluid Mech 36:281–314CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  38. Zhang R (2008) Coherent surface-subsurface fingerprint of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation. Geophys Res Lett 35:L20705CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer-Verlag 2010

Authors and Affiliations

  • Marisa Montoya
    • 1
    Email author
  • Andreas Born
    • 2
    • 3
  • Anders Levermann
    • 4
    • 5
  1. 1.Dpto. Astrofísica y Ciencias de la Atmósfera, Facultad de Ciencias FísicasUniversidad Complutense de Madrid, Ciudad UniversitariaMadridSpain
  2. 2.Bjerknes Centre for Climate ResearchBergenNorway
  3. 3.Geophysical InstituteUniversity of BergenBergenNorway
  4. 4.Earth System Analysis, Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact ResearchPotsdamGermany
  5. 5.Institute of PhysicsPotsdam UniversityPotsdamGermany

Personalised recommendations