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Circulation changes associated with freshwater and heat content variability and implications for biological productivity in the subpolar North Atlantic Ocean

Tesdal, Jan-Erik

Large-scale circulation in the northern North Atlantic plays a crucial role in the global climate by influencing ocean storage of atmospheric heat and carbon. Temperature and salinity changes in this region can have important consequences on ocean circulation due to density stratification at sites of deep water formation. Such influences can involve feedback mechanisms related to the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, which has been shown to influence the hydrography of the northern North Atlantic on decadal timescales. Current expectations are that through increasing sea-ice melting, river discharge, an intensifying hydrological cycle and glacial melt anomalies, future climate change could disrupt North Atlantic circulation patterns with cascading effects on carbon cycling and global climate. These interactions were investigated through circulation changes associated with salinity and freshwater variability, as well as variability in temperature and heat content. Recent changes in phytoplankton concentration and biological productivity in the Labrador Sea were also examined as part of this study.
Spatial and temporal patterns of salinity in the North Atlantic were examined with the help of objective analysis and reanalysis salinity products using Argo observations of the recent decade (2005 to 2015). An overall freshening trend was evident, but with clear regional differences, particularly between the western subpolar gyre and the central North Atlantic. In general, the western subpolar region exhibited high interannual variability in surface salinity compared to the central North Atlantic. The western subpolar region also revealed a seasonal pattern of salinity fluctuation related to sea ice retreat and accretion, but with some years (i.e., 2008, 2012 and 2015) showing unusually large and negative salinity anomalies which were not present in the central or eastern North Atlantic.
To understand the dominant factors influencing salinity and freshwater in the northern North Atlantic, budgets for liquid freshwater content over the northern North Atlantic were derived using a state-of-the-art ocean state estimate (ECCOv4). Here the subpolar North Atlantic (between $\sim$45\oN and the Greenland Scotland ridge) is distinguished from the Nordic Seas (north of the Greenland Scotland ridge). In a separate investigation ECCOv4 was used to describe global ocean heat budgets at varying spatial and temporal resolutions. This analysis showed that anomalies in temperature tendency are driven by atmospheric forcing at short time scales, while advection is the principle term at long time scales. ECCOv4 budget analysis was then used to investigate mechanisms behind interannual freshwater content variability in the northern North Atlantic over the time period 1992-2015. From the mid-1990s to the mid-2000s warming and salinification occurred in the subpolar North Atlantic. Consistent with the upper layer analysis with Argo-observations, ECCOv4 confirmed an overall freshening since about 2005. This freshening occurs simultaneously with an overall cooling in the subpolar North Atlantic. Advective convergence has been identified as the dominant driver of liquid freshwater content and ocean heat content variability in the subpolar North Atlantic, with liquid freshwater and heat content being anti-correlated. Consistent with the global heat analysis in ECCOv4, our results revealed that forcing is only important for establishing anomalies over shorter time scales (i.e., seasonal to interannual), but advective convergence becomes more important at longer (i.e., decadal) scales.
Advection is the dominant term due to changes across the southern boundary on the decadal time scale, while exchanges with the Arctic Ocean have minor impact. Changes in freshwater and heat content in the subpolar North Atlantic due to advection occur through anomalies in the circulation itself, and not by the advection of anomalies in either liquid freshwater or heat content. In contrast to the subpolar North Atlantic, in the Nordic Seas interannual changes in liquid freshwater content are predominantly driven by forcing due to sea ice melting, which is in turn strongly correlated with Arctic sea ice export through Fram Strait.
The overall concurrent warming and salinification followed by cooling and freshening in the subpolar North Atlantic suggests a relationship with changes in northward heat and salt transport through the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. This is consistent with decadal variability in deep convection in the Labrador Sea. It is evident that another consequence of changes in the Labrador Sea deep convection is the potential effects on nutrient availability and thus biological productivity. The Labrador Sea has become more productive in recent years, with mean chlorophyll-a concentrations closely correlated with silicate concentrations in the upper waters, which in turn are strongly correlated with wintertime convection depth. Thus annual production in the Labrador Sea appears to be influenced by the extent of deep winter mixing, thereby linking the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation and deep convection to nutrient availability and ocean productivity in the subpolar North Atlantic.


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More About This Work

Academic Units
Earth and Environmental Sciences
Thesis Advisors
Goes, Joaquim I.
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
August 6, 2020