Thermohaline circulation (THC) is a part of the large-scale ocean circulation that is driven by global density gradients created by surface heat and freshwater fluxes. -haline referring to salt content, factors which together determine the density of sea water. Wind-driven surface currents (such as the Gulf Stream) travel polewards from the equatorial Atlantic Ocean, cooling en route, and eventually sinking at high latitudes (forming North Atlantic Deep Water). This dense water then flows into the ocean basins. While the bulk of it upwells in the Southern Ocean, the oldest waters (with a transit time of around 1000 years) upwell in the North Pacific. Extensive mixing therefore takes place between the ocean basins, reducing differences between them and making the Earth's oceans a global system. On their journey, the water masses transport both energy (in the form of heat) and mass of substances (solids, dissolved substances and gases) around the globe. As such, the state of the circulation has a large impact on the climate of the Earth.The adjective thermohaline derives from thermo- referring to temperature and
An ocean current is a continuous, directed movement of sea water generated by a number of forces acting upon the water, including wind, the Coriolis effect, breaking waves, cabbeling, and temperature and salinity differences. Depth contours, shoreline configurations, and interactions with other currents influence a current's direction and strength. Ocean currents are primarily horizontal water movements.
Density gradient is a spatial variation in density over an area. The term is used in the natural sciences to describe varying density of matter, but can apply to any quantity whose density can be measured.
Flux describes any effect that appears to pass or travel through a surface or substance. A flux is either a concept based in physics or used with applied mathematics. Both concepts have mathematical rigor, enabling comparison of the underlying mathematics when the terminology is unclear. For transport phenomena, flux is a vector quantity, describing the magnitude and direction of the flow of a substance or property. In electromagnetism, flux is a scalar quantity, defined as the surface integral of the component of a vector field perpendicular to the surface at each point.
The thermohaline circulation is sometimes called the ocean conveyor belt, the great ocean conveyor, or the global conveyor belt. On occasion, it is used to refer to the meridional overturning circulation (often abbreviated as MOC). The term MOC is more accurate and well defined, as it is difficult to separate the part of the circulation which is driven by temperature and salinity alone as opposed to other factors such as the wind and tidal forces.Moreover, temperature and salinity gradients can also lead to circulation effects that are not included in the MOC itself.
The terms zonal and meridional are used to describe directions on a globe.
Salinity is the saltiness or amount of salt dissolved in a body of water, called saline water. This is usually measured in . Salinity is an important factor in determining many aspects of the chemistry of natural waters and of biological processes within it, and is a thermodynamic state variable that, along with temperature and pressure, governs physical characteristics like the density and heat capacity of the water.
The tidal force is an apparent force that stretches a body towards and away from the center of mass of another body due to a gradient in gravitational field from the other body; it is responsible for diverse phenomena, including tides, tidal locking, breaking apart of celestial bodies and formation of ring systems within Roche limit, and in extreme cases, spaghettification of objects. It arises because the gravitational field exerted on one body by another is not constant across its parts: the nearest side is attracted more strongly than the farthest side. It is this difference that causes a body to get stretched. Thus, the tidal force is also known as the differential force, as well as a secondary effect of the gravitational field.
The movement of surface currents pushed by the wind is fairly intuitive. For example, the wind easily produces ripples on the surface of a pond. Thus the deep ocean—devoid of wind—was assumed to be perfectly static by early oceanographers. However, modern instrumentation shows that current velocities in deep water masses can be significant (although much less than surface speeds). In general, ocean water velocities range from fractions of centimeters per second (in the depth of the oceans) to sometimes more than 1 m/s in surface currents like the Gulf Stream and Kuroshio.
The Gulf Stream, together with its northern extension the North Atlantic Drift, is a warm and swift Atlantic ocean current that originates in the Gulf of Mexico and stretches to the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The process of western intensification causes the Gulf Stream to be a northward accelerating current off the east coast of North America. At about, it splits in two, with the northern stream, the North Atlantic Drift, crossing to Northern Europe and the southern stream, the Canary Current, recirculating off West Africa.
The Kuroshio is a north-flowing ocean current on the west side of the North Pacific Ocean. It is similar to the Gulf Stream in the North Atlantic and is part of the North Pacific ocean gyre. Like the Gulf stream, it is a strong western boundary current.
In the deep ocean, the predominant driving force is differences in density, caused by salinity and temperature variations (increasing salinity and lowering the temperature of a fluid both increase its density). There is often confusion over the components of the circulation that are wind and density driven.Note that ocean currents due to tides are also significant in many places; most prominent in relatively shallow coastal areas, tidal currents can also be significant in the deep ocean. There they are currently thought to facilitate mixing processes, especially diapycnal mixing.
The density of ocean water is not globally homogeneous, but varies significantly and discretely. Sharply defined boundaries exist between water masses which form at the surface, and subsequently maintain their own identity within the ocean. But these sharp boundaries are not to be imagined spatially but rather in a T-S-diagram where water masses are distinguished. They position themselves above or below each other according to their density, which depends on both temperature and salinity.
An oceanographic water mass is identifiable body of water with a common formation history which has physical properties distinct from surrounding water. Properties include temperature, salinity, chemical - isotopic ratios, and other physical quantities.
Warm seawater expands and is thus less dense than cooler seawater. Saltier water is denser than fresher water because the dissolved salts fill interstices between water molecules, resulting in more mass per unit volume. Lighter water masses float over denser ones (just as a piece of wood or ice will float on water, see buoyancy). This is known as "stable stratification" as opposed to unstable stratification (see Brunt-Väisälä frequency)[ clarification needed ] where denser waters are located over less dense waters (see convection or deep convection needed for water mass formation). When dense water masses are first formed, they are not stably stratified, so they seek to locate themselves in the correct vertical position according to their density. This motion is called convection, it orders the stratification by gravitation. Driven by the density gradients this sets up the main driving force behind deep ocean currents like the deep western boundary current (DWBC).
In physics, buoyancy or upthrust, is an upward force exerted by a fluid that opposes the weight of an immersed object. In a column of fluid, pressure increases with depth as a result of the weight of the overlying fluid. Thus the pressure at the bottom of a column of fluid is greater than at the top of the column. Similarly, the pressure at the bottom of an object submerged in a fluid is greater than at the top of the object. The pressure difference results in a net upward force on the object. The magnitude of the force is proportional to the pressure difference, and is equivalent to the weight of the fluid that would otherwise occupy the volume of the object, i.e. the displaced fluid.
Convection is the heat transfer due to the bulk movement of molecules within fluids such as gases and liquids, including molten rock (rheid). Convection includes sub-mechanisms of advection, and diffusion.
The thermohaline circulation is mainly driven by the formation of deep water masses in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean caused by differences in temperature and salinity of the water.
The great quantities of dense water sinking at high latitudes must be offset by equal quantities of water rising elsewhere. Note that cold water in polar zones sink relatively rapidly over a small area, while warm water in temperate and tropical zones rise more gradually across a much larger area. It then slowly returns poleward near the surface to repeat the cycle. The continual diffuse upwelling of deep water maintains the existence of the permanent thermocline found everywhere at low and mid-latitudes. This model was described by Henry Stommel and Arnold B. Arons in 1960 and is known as the Stommel-Arons box model for the MOC.This slow upward movement is approximated to be about 1 centimeter (0.5 inch) per day over most of the ocean. If this rise were to stop, downward movement of heat would cause the thermocline to descend and would reduce its steepness.
The dense water masses that sink into the deep basins are formed in quite specific areas of the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean. In the North Atlantic, seawater at the surface of the ocean is intensely cooled by the wind and low ambient air temperatures. Wind moving over the water also produces a great deal of evaporation, leading to a decrease in temperature, called evaporative cooling related to latent heat. Evaporation removes only water molecules, resulting in an increase in the salinity of the seawater left behind, and thus an increase in the density of the water mass along with the decrease in temperature. In the Norwegian Sea evaporative cooling is predominant, and the sinking water mass, the North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW), fills the basin and spills southwards through crevasses in the submarine sills that connect Greenland, Iceland and Great Britain which are known as the Greenland-Scotland-Ridge. It then flows very slowly into the deep abyssal plains of the Atlantic, always in a southerly direction. Flow from the Arctic Ocean Basin into the Pacific, however, is blocked by the narrow shallows of the Bering Strait.
In the Southern Ocean, strong katabatic winds blowing from the Antarctic continent onto the ice shelves will blow the newly formed sea ice away, opening polynyas along the coast. The ocean, no longer protected by sea ice, suffers a brutal and strong cooling (see polynya). Meanwhile, sea ice starts reforming, so the surface waters also get saltier, hence very dense. In fact, the formation of sea ice contributes to an increase in surface seawater salinity; saltier brine is left behind as the sea ice forms around it (pure water preferentially being frozen). Increasing salinity lowers the freezing point of seawater, so cold liquid brine is formed in inclusions within a honeycomb of ice. The brine progressively melts the ice just beneath it, eventually dripping out of the ice matrix and sinking. This process is known as brine rejection.
The resulting Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW) sinks and flows north and east, but is so dense it actually underflows the NADW. AABW formed in the Weddell Sea will mainly fill the Atlantic and Indian Basins, whereas the AABW formed in the Ross Sea will flow towards the Pacific Ocean.
The dense water masses formed by these processes flow downhill at the bottom of the ocean, like a stream within the surrounding less dense fluid, and fill up the basins of the polar seas. Just as river valleys direct streams and rivers on the continents, the bottom topography constrains the deep and bottom water masses.
Note that, unlike fresh water, seawater does not have a density maximum at 4 °C but gets denser as it cools all the way to its freezing point of approximately −1.8 °C. This freezing point is however a function of salinity and pressure and thus −1.8 °C is not a general freezing temperature for sea water (see diagram to the right).
Formation and movement of the deep water masses at the North Atlantic Ocean, creates sinking water masses that fill the basin and flows very slowly into the deep abyssal plains of the Atlantic. This high-latitude cooling and the low-latitude heating drives the movement of the deep water in a polar southward flow. The deep water flows through the Antarctic Ocean Basin around South Africa where it is split into two routes: one into the Indian Ocean and one past Australia into the Pacific.
At the Indian Ocean, some of the cold and salty water from the Atlantic—drawn by the flow of warmer and fresher upper ocean water from the tropical Pacific—causes a vertical exchange of dense, sinking water with lighter water above. It is known as overturning. In the Pacific Ocean, the rest of the cold and salty water from the Atlantic undergoes haline forcing, and becomes warmer and fresher more quickly.
The out-flowing undersea of cold and salty water makes the sea level of the Atlantic slightly lower than the Pacific and salinity or halinity of water at the Atlantic higher than the Pacific. This generates a large but slow flow of warmer and fresher upper ocean water from the tropical Pacific to the Indian Ocean through the Indonesian Archipelago to replace the cold and salty Antarctic Bottom Water. This is also known as 'haline forcing' (net high latitude freshwater gain and low latitude evaporation). This warmer, fresher water from the Pacific flows up through the South Atlantic to Greenland, where it cools off and undergoes evaporative cooling and sinks to the ocean floor, providing a continuous thermohaline circulation.
Hence, a recent and popular name for the thermohaline circulation, emphasizing the vertical nature and pole-to-pole character of this kind of ocean circulation, is the meridional overturning circulation.
Direct estimates of the strength of the thermohaline circulation have been made at 26.5°N in the North Atlantic since 2004 by the UK-US RAPID programme.By combining direct estimates of ocean transport using current meters and subsea cable measurements with estimates of the geostrophic current from temperature and salinity measurements, the RAPID programme provides continuous, full-depth, basinwide estimates of the thermohaline circulation or, more accurately, the meridional overturning circulation.
The deep water masses that participate in the MOC have chemical, temperature and isotopic ratio signatures and can be traced, their flow rate calculated, and their age determined. These include 231Pa / 230Th ratios.
The Gulf Stream, together with its northern extension towards Europe, the North Atlantic Drift, is a powerful, warm, and swift Atlantic ocean current that originates at the tip of Florida, and follows the eastern coastlines of the United States and Newfoundland before crossing the Atlantic Ocean. The process of western intensification causes the Gulf Stream to be a northward accelerating current off the east coast of North America.At about , it splits in two, with the northern stream crossing to northern Europe and the southern stream recirculating off West Africa. The Gulf Stream influences the climate of the east coast of North America from Florida to Newfoundland, and the west coast of Europe. Although there has been recent debate, there is consensus that the climate of Western Europe and Northern Europe is warmer than it would otherwise be due to the North Atlantic drift, one of the branches from the tail of the Gulf Stream. It is part of the North Atlantic Gyre. Its presence has led to the development of strong cyclones of all types, both within the atmosphere and within the ocean. The Gulf Stream is also a significant potential source of renewable power generation.
All these dense water masses sinking into the ocean basins displace the older deep water masses that were made less dense by ocean mixing. To maintain a balance, water must be rising elsewhere. However, because this thermohaline upwelling is so widespread and diffuse, its speeds are very slow even compared to the movement of the bottom water masses. It is therefore difficult to measure where upwelling occurs using current speeds, given all the other wind-driven processes going on in the surface ocean. Deep waters have their own chemical signature, formed from the breakdown of particulate matter falling into them over the course of their long journey at depth. A number of scientists have tried to use these tracers to infer where the upwelling occurs.
Wallace Broecker, using box models, has asserted that the bulk of deep upwelling occurs in the North Pacific, using as evidence the high values of silicon found in these waters. Other investigators have not found such clear evidence. Computer models of ocean circulation increasingly place most of the deep upwelling in the Southern Ocean,associated with the strong winds in the open latitudes between South America and Antarctica. While this picture is consistent with the global observational synthesis of William Schmitz at Woods Hole and with low observed values of diffusion, not all observational syntheses agree. Recent papers by Lynne Talley at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography and Bernadette Sloyan and Stephen Rintoul in Australia suggest that a significant amount of dense deep water must be transformed to light water somewhere north of the Southern Ocean.
The thermohaline circulation plays an important role in supplying heat to the polar regions, and thus in regulating the amount of sea ice in these regions, although poleward heat transport outside the tropics is considerably larger in the atmosphere than in the ocean.Changes in the thermohaline circulation are thought to have significant impacts on the Earth's radiation budget.
Large influxes of low-density meltwater from Lake Agassiz and deglaciation in North America are thought to have led to a shifting of deep water formation and subsidence in the extreme North Atlantic and caused the climate period in Europe known as the Younger Dryas.
In 2005, British researchers noticed that the net flow of the northern Gulf Stream had decreased by about 30% since 1957. Coincidentally, scientists at Woods Hole had been measuring the freshening of the North Atlantic as Earth becomes warmer. Their findings suggested that precipitation increases in the high northern latitudes, and polar ice melts as a consequence. By flooding the northern seas with lots of extra fresh water, global warming could, in theory, divert the Gulf Stream waters that usually flow northward, past the British Isles and Norway, and cause them to instead circulate toward the Equator. If this were to happen, Europe's climate would be seriously impacted.
Downturn of AMOC (Atlantic meridional overturning circulation), has been tied to extreme regional sea level rise.
In 2013, an unexpected significant weakening of the THC led to one of the quietest Atlantic hurricane seasons observed since 1994. The main cause of the inactivity was caused by a continuation of the spring pattern across the Atlantic basin.
North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) is a deep water mass formed in the North Atlantic Ocean. Thermohaline circulation of the world's oceans involves the flow of warm surface waters from the southern hemisphere into the North Atlantic. Water flowing northward becomes modified through evaporation and mixing with other water masses, leading to increased salinity. When this water reaches the North Atlantic it cools and sinks through convection, due to its decreased temperature and increased salinity resulting in increased density. NADW is the outflow of this thick deep layer, which can be detected by its high salinity, high oxygen content, nutrient minima, high 14C/12C, and chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs).
Downwelling is the process of accumulation and sinking of higher density material beneath lower density material, such as cold or saline water beneath warmer or fresher water or cold air beneath warm air. It is the sinking limb of a convection cell. Upwelling is the opposite process and together these two forces are responsible in the oceans for the thermohaline circulation. The sinking of cold lithosphere at subduction zones is another example of downwelling in plate tectonics.
Physical oceanography is the study of physical conditions and physical processes within the ocean, especially the motions and physical properties of ocean waters.
The East Greenland Current (EGC) is a cold, low salinity current that extends from Fram Strait (~80N) to Cape Farewell (~60N). The current is located off the eastern coast of Greenland along the Greenland continental margin. The current cuts through the Nordic Seas and through the Denmark Strait. The current is of major importance because it directly connects the Arctic to the Northern Atlantic, it is a major contributor to sea ice export out of the Arctic, and it is a major freshwater sink for the Arctic.
In oceanography, a halocline is a subtype of chemocline caused by a strong, vertical salinity gradient within a body of water. Because salinity affects the density of seawater, it can play a role in its vertical stratification. Increasing salinity by one kg/m3 results in an increase of seawater density of around 0.7 kg/m3.
The Norwegian Current is a water current that flows northeasterly along the Atlantic coast of Norway at depths of between 50 and 100 metres through the Barents Sea Opening into the Barents Sea. It contrasts with the North Atlantic Current because it is colder and contains less salt, having most of its tributary water coming from the slightly brackish North and Baltic seas, as well as the Norwegian fjords and rivers. It is, however, considerably warmer and saltier than the Arctic Ocean, which is freshened by the ice in and around it. Winter temperatures in the Norwegian current are typically between 2 and 5 °C whereas the temperature of the Atlantic water exceeds 6 °C.
A subtropical front is a surface water mass boundary or front, which is a narrow zone of transition between air masses of contrasting density, air masses of different temperatures or different water vapour concentrates. It is also characterized by an unforeseen change in wind direction, and speed across its surface between water systems, which are based on temperature and salinity. The subtropical separates the more saline subtropical waters from the fresher sub-Antarctic waters.
A shutdown or slowdown of the thermohaline circulation is a hypothesized effect of global warming on a major ocean circulation.
The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) is the zonally-integrated component of surface and deep currents in the Atlantic Ocean. It is characterized by a northward flow of warm, salty water in the upper layers of the Atlantic, and a southward flow of colder, deep waters that are part of the thermohaline circulation. These "limbs" are linked by regions of overturning in the Nordic and Labrador Seas and the Southern Ocean. The AMOC is an important component of the Earth’s climate system, and is a result of both atmospheric and thermohaline drivers.
A subsurface current is an oceanic current that runs beneath surface currents. Examples include the Equatorial Undercurrents of the Pacific, Atlantic, and Indian Oceans, the California Undercurrent, and the Agulhas Undercurrent, the deep thermohaline circulation in the Atlantic, and bottom gravity currents near Antarctica. The forcing mechanisms vary for these different types of subsurface currents.
Antarctic Intermediate Water (AAIW) is a cold, relatively low salinity water mass found mostly at intermediate depths in the Southern Ocean. The AAIW is formed at the ocean surface in the Antarctic Convergence zone or more commonly called the Antarctic Polar Front zone. This convergence zone is normally located between 50°S and 60°S, hence this is where almost all of the AAIW is formed.
Paleosalinity is the salinity of the global ocean or of an ocean basin at a point in geological history.
The Rapid Climate Change-Meridional Overturning Circulation and Heatflux Array (RAPID/MOCHA) program is a collaborative research project between the National Oceanography Centre, the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS), and NOAA’s Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory (AOML) that measure the meridional overturning circulation (MOC) and ocean heat transport in the North Atlantic Ocean. This array was deployed in March 2004 to continuously monitor the MOC and ocean heat transport that are primarily associated with the Thermohaline Circulation across the basin at 26°N. The RAPID-MOCHA array is planned to be continued through 2014 to provide a decade or longer continuous time series.
The phenomenon of paleoflooding is apparent in the geologic record over various spatial and temporal scales. It often occurred on a large scale, and was the result of either glacial ice melt causing large outbursts of freshwater, or high sea levels breaching bodies of freshwater. If a freshwater outflow event was large enough that the water reached the ocean system, it caused changes in salinity that potentially affected ocean circulation and global climate. Freshwater flows could also accumulate to form continental glacial lakes, and this is another indicator of large-scale flooding. In contrast, periods of high global sea level could cause marine water to breach natural dams and flow into bodies of freshwater. Changes in salinity of freshwater and marine bodies can be detected from the analysis of organisms that inhabited those bodies at a given time, as certain organisms are more suited to live in either fresh or saline conditions.
Brine rejection is a process that occurs when salty water freezes. The salts do not fit in the crystal structure of water ice, so the salt is expelled.
Labrador Sea Water (LSW) is an intermediate water mass characterized by cold water, relatively low salinity compared to other intermediate water masses, and high concentrations of both oxygen and anthropogenic tracers. It is formed by convective processes in the Labrador Sea located between Greenland and the northeast coast of the Labrador Peninsula. Deep convection in the Labrador Sea allows colder water to sink forming this water mass, which is a contributor to the upper layer of North Atlantic Deep Water. North Atlantic Deep Water flowing southward is integral to the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. The Labrador Sea experiences a net heat loss to the atmosphere annually.
The cold blob in the North Atlantic describes a cold temperature anomaly of ocean surface waters, affecting the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) which is part of the thermohaline circulation, possibly related to global warming-induced melting of the Greenland ice sheet.
The Overturning in the Subpolar North Atlantic Program (OSNAP) is an international project designed to study the mechanistic link between water mass transformation at high latitudes and the meridional overturning circulation in the North Atlantic on interannual time scales. Though this linkage is evident in climate models on decadal time scales, to date there has been no clear demonstration of AMOC variability in response to changes in deep water formation on interannual and decadal time scales. OSNAP intends to fill that gap by providing a continuous record of the trans-basin fluxes of heat, mass and freshwater for a comparison to records of convective activity and water mass transformation at high latitudes in the North Atlantic.