Thermohaline circulation

Thermohaline circulation
A summary of the path of the thermohaline circulation/ Great Ocean Conveyor. Blue paths represent deep-water currents, while red paths represent surface currents

The term thermohaline circulation (THC) refers to a part of the large-scale ocean circulation that is driven by global density gradients created by surface heat and freshwater fluxes. The adjective thermohaline derives from thermo- referring to temperature and -haline referring to salt content, factors which together determine the density of sea water. Wind-driven surface currents (such as the Gulf Stream) head polewards from the equatorial Atlantic Ocean, cooling all the while 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 1600 years) upwell in the North Pacific (Primeau, 2005). Extensive mixing therefore takes place between the ocean basins, reducing differences between them and making the Earth's ocean a global system. On their journey, the water masses transport both energy (in the form of heat) and matter (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 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, however, is more accurate and well defined, as it is difficult to separate the part of the circulation which is actually driven by temperature and salinity alone as opposed to other factors such as the wind and tidal forcing.[1] Temperature and salinity gradients can also lead to a circulation which does not add to the MOC itself.



The conveyor belt on a continuous-ocean map

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 the deep ocean, the predominant driving force is differences in density, caused by salinity and temperature (the more saline the denser, and the colder the denser). There is often confusion over the components of the circulation that are wind and density driven.[2] 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.

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. They position themselves one above or below each other according to their density, which depends on both temperature and salinity.

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". When dense water masses are first formed, they are not stably stratified. In order to take up their most stable positions, water masses of different densities must flow, providing a driving force for deep currents.

The thermohaline circulation is mainly triggered by the formation of deep water masses in the North Atlantic and the Southern Ocean and Haline forcing caused by differences in temperature and salinity of the water.

Formation of deep water masses

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 these polar regions, seawater at the surface of the ocean is intensely cooled by the wind. Wind moving over the water also produces a great deal of evaporation, leading to a decrease in temperature, called evaporative cooling. 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. 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. 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.

The formation of sea ice also contributes to an increase in seawater salinity; saltier brine is left behind as the sea ice forms around it (pure water preferentially being frozen). Increasing salinity depresses the freezing temperature 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 exclusion. By contrast in the Weddell Sea off the coast of Antarctica near the edge of the ice pack, the effect of wind cooling is intensified by brine exclusion.

The resulting Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW) sinks and flows north into the Atlantic Basin, but is so dense it actually underflows the NADW. Again, flow into the Pacific is blocked, this time by the Drake Passage between the Antarctic Peninsula and the southernmost tip of South America.

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 steers the deep and bottom water masses.

Note that, unlike fresh water, saline water 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.[citation needed]

Movement of thermohaline circulation

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 faster becomes warmer and fresher.

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.[3]

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.

Quantitative Estimation

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.

Gulf Stream

The North Atlantic Current, warm ocean current that continues the Gulf Stream northeast, is largely driven by the global thermohaline circulation to further east and north from the North American coast, across the Atlantic and into the Arctic Ocean.


All these dense water masses sinking into the ocean basins displace the water below them, so that elsewhere water must be rising in order to maintain a balance. 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 do however have their own chemical signature, formed from the breakdown of particulate matter falling into them over the course of their long journey at depth; and a number of authors 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. However, 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.

Effects on global climate

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.[4] Changes in the thermohaline circulation are thought to have significant impacts on the Earth's radiation budget. Insofar as the thermohaline circulation governs the rate at which deep waters are exposed to the surface, it may also play an important role in determining the concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. While it is often stated that the thermohaline circulation is the primary reason that Western Europe is so temperate, it has been suggested that this is largely incorrect, and that Europe is warm mostly because it lies downwind of an ocean basin, and because of the effect of atmospheric waves bringing warm air north from the subtropics.[5] However, the underlying assumptions of this particular analysis have likewise been challenged.[6]

Large influxes of low density meltwater from Lake Agassiz and deglaciation in North America are thought to have led to a disruption of deep water formation and subsidence in the extreme North Atlantic and caused the climate period in Europe known as the Younger Dryas.[7]

See also


  1. ^ Wunsch, C. (2002). "What is the thermohaline circulation?". Science 298 (5596): 1179–1181. doi:10.1126/science.1079329. PMID 12424356. 
  2. ^ Schmidt, G., 2005, Gulf Stream slowdown?, RealClimate
  3. ^ United Nations Environment Programme / GRID-Arendal, 2006, [1]. Potential Impact of Climate Change
  4. ^ Trenberth, K.; J. Caron (2001). "Estimates of Meridional Atmosphere and Ocean Heat Transports". Journal of Climate 14 (16): 3433–3443. Bibcode 2001JCli...14.3433T. doi:10.1175/1520-0442(2001)014<3433:EOMAAO>2.0.CO;2. 
  5. ^ Seager,R., 2006, The Source of Europe's Mild Climate, American Scientist
  6. ^ Rhines and Hakkinen, 2003, Is the Oceanic Heat Transport in the North Atlantic Irrelevant to the Climate in Europe? ASOF Newsletter
  7. ^ Broecker, Wallace S. (2006). "Was the Younger Dryas Triggered by a Flood?". Science 312 (5777): 1146–1148. doi:10.1126/science.1123253. PMID 16728622. 


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