Thermohaline circulation: a missing equation and its climate-change implications

Ou, Hsien Wang

We formulate a box model of coupled ocean– atmosphere to examine the differential fields interactive with the thermohaline circulation (THC) and their response to global warming. We discern a robust convective bound on the atmospheric heat transport, which would divide the climate regime into warm and cold branches; but unlike the saline mode of previous box models, the cold state, if allowed, has the same-signed—though weaker—density contrast and THC as the present climate, which may explain its emergence from coupled general circulation models. We underscore the nondeterminacy of the THC due to random eddy shedding and apply the fluctuation theorem to constrain the shedding rate, thus closing the problem. The derivation reveals an ocean propelled toward the maximum entropy production (MEP) on millennial timescale (termed “MEP-adjustment”), the long timescale arising from the compounding effect of microscopic fluctuations in the shedding rate and their slight probability bias. Global warming may induce hysteresis between the two branches, like that seen in GCMs, but the cold transition is far more sensitive to the moistening than the heating effects as the latter would be countered by the hydrological feedback. The uni- or bi-modality of the current state—hence whether the THC may recover after the cold transition— depends on the global-mean convective flux and may not be easily assessed due to its observed uncertainty.


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Also Published In

Climate Dynamics

More About This Work

Academic Units
Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory
Published Here
September 24, 2018