Arctic freshwater storage and export – what will it mean for the AMOC?

by Helen Johnson

with input from Sam Cornish and Yavor Kostov

The first results from the OSNAP array, published this month in Science (https://science.sciencemag.org/content/363/6426/516), are incredibly exciting! Over the 21 months of data collected so far, it has been the conversion of warm, salty, shallow Atlantic water into colder, fresher, deep water east of Greenland that has dominated the overturning circulation and its variability.  This challenges the prevailing view that deep water formation in the Labrador Sea to the west of Greenland is the major player in determining overturning variability.  And it gives us some clues about how changes further north, in the Arctic Ocean, might affect things.

A major motivation for measuring the overturning circulation with the OSNAP and other observational arrays arises from the expectation that the overturning will change as a result of human-induced climate change. The overturning circulation is predicted to weaken over the coming century, due to a warming and freshening of the high latitude North Atlantic. Part of the freshening expected in these critical deep water formation regions is due to changes in the amount of freshwater exported from the Arctic to the Atlantic, on both sides of Greenland. The Arctic Ocean has recently accumulated a large amount of freshwater, but we do not know if or when it will be exported to the Atlantic, or at what rate.

My group in Oxford have been investigating changes in the amount of freshwater stored in the Arctic, and the reasons for them, in the hope that this will teach us something about the changes we might expect in freshwater export (https://agupubs.onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/full/10.1029/2017GL076870). We have deduced the relationship between winds over the Arctic and total Arctic freshwater storage in a climate model. We now know that if the winds over the Arctic change, it takes the system at least a decade to come into a new equilibrium, with a different amount of freshwater stored.  Based on the relationship we deduce between winds and freshwater content, we estimate changes in Arctic freshwater content over the last century – and our time series agrees well with the limited observational data available (see figure), giving us confidence that the relationship is a useful description of the real world!

Our results suggest that the large increase in Arctic freshwater content since 1992 can largely be explained by historical changes in the winds driving the Arctic Ocean circulation (although we can’t rule out a smaller contribution from sea-ice melt).  What’s more, this increase doesn’t seem exceptional compared to variability in our time series over the rest of the century, suggesting that it may simply be natural variability.

Of course, changes in freshwater exported from the Arctic, natural or not, still have the potential to affect the overturning circulation! The long memory of atmospheric conditions revealed by our results is important because, provided we know what the winds have done, we can potentially predict changes in Arctic freshwater content a few years ahead. Based on our work so far, we expect Arctic freshwater content to decrease over the coming decade, and freshwater export to the Atlantic to increase.

The OSNAP array is ideally-placed to detect any impact of this change on the high-latitude overturning circulation. Based on the OSNAP results so far, we might expect that Arctic freshwater export through Fram Strait to the Nordic Seas (rather than through the Canadian Archipelago to the Labrador Sea) will have the most impact. So we have several hypotheses that our continued OSNAP observations and modelling efforts will put to the test in the coming years!

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