Response of a Coupled Ocean–Atmosphere Model to Greenland Ice Melting


We investigate the transient response of the global coupled ocean–atmosphere system to enhanced freshwater forcing representative of melting of the Greenland ice sheets. A 50-year long simulation by a coupled atmosphere–ocean general circulation model (CGCM) is compared with another of the same length in which Greenland melting is prescribed. To highlight the importance of coupled atmosphere–ocean processes, the CGCM results are compared with those of two other experiments carried out with the oceanic general circulation model (OGCM). In one of these OGCM experiments, the prescribed surface fluxes of heat, momentum and freshwater correspond to the unperturbed simulation by the CGCM; in the other experiment, Greenland melting is added to the freshwater flux. The responses by the CGCM and OGCM to the Greenland melting have similar patterns in the Atlantic, albeit the former having five times larger amplitudes in sea surface height anomalies. The CGCM shows likewise stronger variability in all state variables in all ocean basins because the impact of Greenland melting is quickly communicated to all ocean basins via atmospheric bridges. We conclude that the response of the global climate to Greenland ice melting is highly dependent on coupled atmosphere–ocean processes. These lead to reduced latent heat flux into the atmosphere and an associated increase in net freshwater flux into the ocean, especially in the subpolar North Atlantic. The combined result is a stronger response of the coupled system to Greenland ice sheet melting.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.

Fig. 1
Fig. 2
Fig. 3
Fig. 4
Fig. 5
Fig. 6
Fig. 7
Fig. 8
Fig. 9
Fig. 10
Fig. 11
Fig. 12
Fig. 13
Fig. 14
Fig. 15
Fig. 16


  1. Agarwal N, Köhl A, Stammer D, Mechoso CR (2011) Atmospheric response to high latitude perturbations in oceanic fresh-water forcing (in preparation)

  2. Arakawa A, Schubert WH (1974) Interaction of a cumulus cloud ensemble with the large-scale environment, part I. J Atmos Sci 31:674–701

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Cazes-Boezio G, Menemenlis D, Mechoso CR (2008) Impact of ECCO ocean-state estimates on the initialization of seasonal climate forecasts. J Clim 21:1929–1947

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Dorman JL, Sellers PJ (1989) A global climatology of albedo, roughness length and stomatal resistance for atmospheric general circulation models as represented by the Simple Biosphere Model (SiB). J Appl Meteorol 28:833–855

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Eden C, Greatbatch RJ (2003) A damped decadal oscillation in the North Atlantic climate system. J Clim 16:4043–4060

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. Gent PR, McWilliams JC (1990) Isopycnal mixing in ocean circulation models. J Phys Oceanogr 20:150–155

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Greatbatch RJ (1994) A note on the representation of steric sea-level in models that conserve volume rather than mass. J Geophys Res 99:12767–12771

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Harshvardhan RD, Randall DA, Corsetti TG (1987) A fast radiation parameterization for atmospheric circulation models. J Geophys Res 92:1009–1016

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. Harshvardhan RD, Corsetti TG, Dazlich DA (1989) Earth radiation budget and cloudiness simulations with a general circulation model. J Atmos Sci 46:1922–1942

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. Hawkins E, Sutton R (2009) Decadal predictability of the Atlantic Ocean in a coupled GCM: forecast skill and optimal perturbations using linear inverse modelling. J Clim. doi:10.1175/2009JCLI2720.1

  11. Hu A, Meehl GA, Han W, Yin J (2009) Transient response of the MOC and climate to potential melting of the Greenland Ice Sheet in the 21st century. Geophys Res Lett. doi:10.1029/2009GL037998

  12. Köhler M (1999) Explicit prediction of ice clouds in general circulation models. Ph.D. dissertation, Department of Atmospheric Sciences, University of California, Los Angeles

  13. Konor CS, Cazes-Boezio G, Mechoso CR, Arakawa A (2008) Parameterization of PBL processes in an atmospheric general circulation model: description and preliminary assessment. Mon Weather Rev 137(3):1061

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Large WG, McWilliams JC, Doney S (1994) Oceanic vertical mixing: a review and a model with a nonlocal boundary layer parameterization. Rev Geophys 32:363–403

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Landerer FW, JH Jungclaus, L Marotzke (2007) Regional dynamic and steric sea level change in response to the IPCC-A1B scenario. J Phys Oceanogr 37:296–312

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Large WG, Danabasoglu G, Doney SC, McWilliams JC (1997) Sensitivity to surface forcing and boundary layer mixing in a global ocean model: annual-mean climatology. J Phys Oceanogr 27:2418–2447

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Li JL, Köhler M, Farrara JD, Mechoso CR (2002) The impact of stratocumulus cloud radiative properties on surface heat fluxes simulated with a general circulation model. Mon Weather Rev 130:1433–1441

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Luthke S, Zwally H, Abdalati W, Rowlands DD, Ray RD, Nerem RS, Lemoine FG, McCarthy JJ, Chinn DS (2006) Recent Greenland mass loss by drainage system from satellite gravity observations. Science 314(5803):1286–1289

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. Ma HY, Mechoso CR, Xue Y, Xiao H, Wu CM, Li JL, DeSales F (2010) Impact of land surface processes on the South American warm season climate. Clim Dyn. doi:10.1007/s00382-010-0813-3

  20. Okumora YM, Deser C, Hu A (2009) North Pacific climate response to freshwater focring in the subarctic North Atlantic: oceanic and atmospheric pathways. J Clim. doi:10.1175/2008JCLI2511.1

  21. Pan DM, Randall DA (1998) A cumulus parameterization with a prognostic closure. Q J R Meteorol Soc 124:949–981

    Google Scholar 

  22. Pardaens A, Gregory JM, Lowe J (2010) A model study of factors influencing projected changes in regional sea level over the twenty-first century. Clim Dyn. doi:10.1007/s00382-009-0738-x

  23. Rahmstorf S, Willebrand J (1995) The role of temperature feedback in stabilizing the thermohaline circulation. J Phys Oceanogr 25:787–805

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Rahmstorf S, Crucifix M, Ganopolski A, Goosse H, Kamenkovich I, Knutti R, Lohmann G, Marsh R, Mysak LA, Wang Z, Weaver AJ (2005) Thermohaline circulation hysteresis: a model intercomparison. Geophys Res Lett. doi:10.1029/2005GL023655

  25. Redi MH (1982) Oceanic isopycnical mixing by coordinate rotation. J Phys Oceanogr 12:1154–1158

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. Stammer D (2008) Response of the global ocean to Greenland and Antarctic ice melting. J Geophys Res. doi:10.1029/2006JC004079

  27. Stouffer RJ, Yin J, Gregory JM, Dixon KW, Spelman MJ et al (2006) Investigating the causes of the response of the thermohaline circulation to past and future climate changes. J Clim 19:698–722

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Suarez M, Arakawa A, Randall D (1983) The parameterization of the planetary boundary layer in the UCLA general circulation model: formulation and results. Mon Weather Rev 111:2224–2243

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Timmermann A, Okumura Y, An SI, Clement A, Dong B, Guilyardi E, Hu A, Jungclaus JH, Renold M, Stocker TF, Stouffer RJ, Sutton R, Xie SP, Yin J (2007) The Influence of a weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation on ENSO. J Clim. doi:10.1175/JCLI4283.1

  30. Xue Y, Sellers PJ, Kinter JL III, Shukla J (1991) A simplified biosphere model for global climate studies. J Clim 4:345–364

    Article  Google Scholar 

  31. Xue Y, Bastable HG, Dirmeyer PA, Sellers PJ (1996) Sensitivity of simulated surface fluxes to changes in land surface parameterization—a study using ABRACOS data. J Appl Meteorol 35:386–400

    Article  Google Scholar 

  32. Xue Y, Fennessy MJ, Sellers PJ (1996) Impact of vegetation properties on US summer weather prediction. J Geophys Res 101:7419–7430

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


While revising this paper, Peter Herrmann, a co-author of this paper, unexpectedly passed away and we are indebted for his contribution to this paper. We thank R. Ray and S. Luthke for providing the Greenland mass loss field. CRM acknowledges financial support through the Deutsche Forschungs Gemeinschaft (DFG) funded excellence initiative CliSAP during several research visits to the University of Hamburg. We also thank several anonymous referees who provided very constructive and helpful comments. Funded in part through a MPG (Max Planck Society) Fellowship, the Special Research Program (SPP 1257) “Mass transports and distribution in the Earth System” funded by the DFG, and the BMBF (Federal Ministery of Education and Sciencr) Project REAL-GOACE. Contribution to the CliSAP Excellence Cluster, also funded through the DFG.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to D. Stammer.

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

Stammer, D., Agarwal, N., Herrmann, P. et al. Response of a Coupled Ocean–Atmosphere Model to Greenland Ice Melting. Surv Geophys 32, 621 (2011).

Download citation


  • Greenland ice sheet melting
  • Sealevel rise
  • Coupled atmosphere–ocean experiments