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Atlantic Ocean - Climate

The North Atlantic Oscillation or NAO is a cycle that repeats on the order of months to several years. The NAO is a fluctuation in the intensity of the Iceland low-pressure zone southeast of Greenland and the subtropical high-pressure zone northwest of Africa, over the Azores. The fluctuations and movements in this pressure pattern control the strength and direction of the westerlies and storm tracks across the North Atlantic. This impacts temperature and precipitation from New England to Western Europe, across Siberia, and from the eastern Mediterranean southward to West Africa.

The North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO) consists of two pressure centers in the North Atlantic: one is an area of low pressure typically located near Iceland, and the other an area of high pressure over the Azores (an island chain located in the eastern Atlantic Ocean). It is important to note that these two locations are most commonly used to measure the NAO, but studies have found that the pressure centers move around on a seasonal basis, and other locations have also been used for measuring this index.

Fluctuations in the strength of these features significantly alters the alignment of the jet stream, especially over the eastern US, and ultimately affects temperature and precipitation distributions in this area. It is also important to note that the AO and NAO are two separate indices that are ultimately describing the same phenomenon of varying pressure gradients in the northern latitudes and the resultant effects on temperature and storm tracks across the continent.

During a positive NAO there is a strengthening of the Icelandic low and Azores high. This strengthening results in an increased pressure gradient over the North Atlantic, which cause the westerlies to increase in strength. The increased westerlies allow cold air to drain off the North American continent rather than letting it build up and move south.

Above average geopotential heights are observed over the eastern US, which correlates to above average temperatures. The eastern U.S. often sees a wetter pattern with stronger storms during the winter season in this phase due to increased upper level winds. Recent studies at the SCO indicate a decreased potential for wintry weather in NC due to the lack of cold air availability and above average temperatures associated with a positive NAO in this region.

A negative NAO indicates weakening of both the Icelandic low and Azores high, which decreases the pressure gradient across the North Atlantic. This decreased pressure gradient results in a slackening of the westerlies. The decrease in the westerlies allows cold air to build up over Canada, and this combined with below average heights (troughing) over the eastern US gives the cold air a greater chance to move south and affect the eastern United States.

Below average geopotential heights are often observed over the eastern US during the negative phase of the NAO, which correlates to below average temperatures. The eastern US typically receives colder, drier air masses during the winter season in this phase. Recent studies at the SCO indicate an increased potential for wintry weather in NC due to the position and availability of cold air, and a more favorable upper level pattern conducive to coastal storm tracks.

The overflow and descent of cold, dense water from the sills of the Denmark Strait and the Faroe Shetland channel into the North Atlantic Ocean is the principal means of ventilating the deep oceans, and is therefore a key element of the global thermohaline circulation. Most computer simulations of the ocean system in a climate with increasing atmospheric greenhouse-gas concentrations predict a weakening thermohaline circulation in the North Atlantic as the subpolar seas become fresher and warmer, and it is assumed that this signal will be transferred to the deep ocean by the two overflows.

Increasingly clear evidence implicates ocean circulation in abrupt and dramatic climate shifts, such as sudden temperature changes in Greenland on the order of 5-10 degrees C and massive surges of icebergs into the North Atlantic Ocean -- events that occurred repeatedly during the last glacial cycle.

It has long been recognized that the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (MOC) is potentially sensitive to greenhouse-gas and other climate forcing, and that changes in the MOC have the potential to cause abrupt climate change. The Atlantic meridional overturning circulation is widely believed to affect climate. Changes in ocean circulation have been inferred from records of the deep water chemical composition derived from sedimentary nutrient proxies, but their impact on climate is difficult to assess because such reconstructions provide insufficient constraints on the rate of overturning.

The meridional overturning was nearly, or completely, eliminated during the coldest deglacial interval in the North Atlantic region, beginning with the catastrophic iceberg discharge Heinrich event H1, 17,500 yr ago, and declined sharply but briefly into the Younger Dryas cold event, about 12,700 yr ago. Following these cold events, the record indicates that rapid accelerations of the meridional overturning circulation were concurrent with the two strongest regional warming events during deglaciation. These results confirm the significance of variations in the rate of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation for abrupt climate changes.

Changes in the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) are moderate in most climate model projections under increasing greenhouse gas forcing. This intermodel consensus may be an artifact of common model biases that favor a stable AMOC. Observationally based freshwater budget analyses suggest that the AMOC is in an unstable regime susceptible for large changes in response to perturbations.

By correcting the model biases, the AMOC collapses 300 years after the atmospheric CO2 concentration is abruptly doubled from the 1990 level. Compared to an uncorrected model, the AMOC collapse brings about large, markedly different climate responses: a prominent cooling over the northern North Atlantic and neighboring areas, sea ice increases over the Greenland- Iceland- Norwegian seas and to the south of Greenland, and a significant southward rain-belt migration over the tropical Atlantic.

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Page last modified: 22-07-2017 18:08:14 ZULU