Major Study Rewrites the Driving Source of Atlantic Ocean Circulation

By Roni Dengler | February 1, 2019 6:00 pm
atlantic meridional oscillating current

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, shown here, serves as a conveyor belt that transports heat and pulls carbon from the atmosphere into the deep ocean.(Credit: R. Curry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution/Science/USGCR)

Massive volumes of water circulate throughout the Atlantic Ocean and serve as the central drivers of Earth’s climate. Now researchers have discovered that the heart of this circulation is not where they suspected.

“The general understanding has been [that it’s] in the Labrador Sea, which sits between the Canadian coast and the west side of Greenland,” said Susan Lozier, a physical oceanographer at Duke University in Durham, North Carolina, who led the new research. “What we found instead was that … the bulk [of it] is taking place from the east side of Greenland all the way over to the Scottish shelf.”

The discovery will help improve global climate models.

Ocean In Motion

Water courses through the Atlantic Ocean in two layers. A shallow layer pulls warm water from the tropics north. This layer, which includes the Gulf Stream, helps keep winters in Western Europe relatively mild. As the warm waters travel to the North Atlantic, they cool and then sink, forming the second layer that spreads south.

This conveyor belt of currents, known as the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation, or AMOC, influences the climate by transporting heat and moving carbon from the atmosphere to the deep ocean. Although its flow is variable, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicts the AMOC will slow down in the 21st century. And as the climate warms, the waters at high latitude might not sink, or overturn, as much, slowing the AMOC.

“We’re trying to understand in the years and decades ahead, how sensitive is the overturning to these changes we expect at high latitude,” Lozier said.

O(h) SNAP!

That’s why, back in 2007, Lozier initiated the Overturning in the Subpolar North Atlantic Program, or OSNAP, so dubbed thanks to a phrase commonly used by her then 19-year old son. The $32 million, five-year program capitalizes on the expertise of scientists from seven countries in what Lozier calls “an amazing international collaboration.”

In August of 2014, the researchers deployed the OSNAP observation system, a string of instruments that stretch from the Labrador Sea on the Canadian coast to the Scottish shelf, to assess the temperature, flow and salinity of water moving to and from the North Atlantic. After more than 21 months of making measurements, the researchers recovered the array’s first round of data in April of 2016.

The OSNAP array revealed overturning circulation between the southwestern tip of Greenland and the Scottish shelf is about seven times greater than that in the Labrador Sea, the team reports today in the journal Science. Irregular overturning in the area east of Greenland also accounts for 88 percent of the variation in AMOC, the researchers found.

“We want this data then to provide ground truthing to the models because the models are really the only ones that can provide predictions,” said Lozier. “Now they have this benchmark. And if they can match what we see with these OSNAP observations then they’re going to be able to give us better predictions for the years and decades ahead.”

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Environment, top posts
MORE ABOUT: climate change, ocean
  • Cjones1

    Another IPCC calculation should be forthcoming.
    I understand the magnetic pole has been rapidly shifting from Canada towards Siberia and has shifted back close to a position in the 1600s. Will this shift in magnetic position affect the AMOC, other air/ocean currents, ice thickness changes, and other climate related factors?

    • StanChaz


      • Cjones1

        Keep your eyes and ears open. The AGW geniuses can’t get their predictions to come true. Other factors must be recognized as being responsible for climate changes.

  • Just call me Joe


    Someone should kill this study and burn its reports, if not put its researchers on the pyre themselves, because it violates global warming dogma.

    “volumes of water circulate throughout the Atlantic Ocean and serve as the central drivers of Earth’s climate”
    We have been told by climate researchers and have a consensus that human caused CO2 is the “primary driver of climate change”.

    “Irregular overturning in the area east of Greenland also accounts for 88 percent of the variation in AMOC”
    If the water circulation is a central driver of climate and it has variation, then that variation is the primary driver of climate change, not CO2.

    • JWrenn

      It doesn’t say that doesn’t happen. It just says it is higher north than they thought.

      “If the water circulation is a central driver of climate and it has variation, then that variation is the primary driver of climate change, not CO2.”
      You are just making things up now. It is not the central driver, it is one of the central movers of heat. If it didn’t exist then the heat would not spread north along the Atlantic and norther Europe would be much colder. It has nothing to do….absolutely nothing to do with average temperatures on the planet.

      • Just call me Joe

        Maybe you should re-read the article, “Massive volumes of water circulate throughout the Atlantic Ocean and serve as the CENTRAL DRIVERS of Earth’s climate”

        • JWrenn

          Climate, not warming.

          • William Hunt

            But, also from the article : “And as the climate warms, the waters at high latitude might not sink, or overturn, as much, slowing the AMOC”. So yes, the water circulation drives climate, but the water circulation is affected by the increasing temperatures.

          • William Hunt

            Also, driving climate change is not the same as driving climate – climate change is the derivative of climate.

          • JWrenn

            Not sure that was meant for me. Climate and warming are completely different terms but both have to do with each other. In this case water spreads out the heat and drives the climate, and the changes in temperature affect how the water does that. The idea, as proposed by a poster above that it drives global warming just makes no sense. It is mumbo jumbo at best.

        • Dan Silverman

          Climate, climate change/global warming and weather three different like es of discussion.

      • Chance Liley

        Obviously you have poor understanding of the CO2 cycle. There is no contradiction here.

        • JWrenn

          Wow, replied to a months old article and didn’t say a thing. Well done.

    • Uncle Al

      … In August 2011, I had dropped by proxy 29 messages in champagne bottles north of Barrow, AK.

      #778 was recovered 01 April 2018, Hafnir Iceland.
      #779 was recovered 13 December 2017; Vatersay Beach, Outer Hebrides.

      I contacted an oceanographer monitoring two strings of moored data-collecting buoys across the North Atlantic. The recoveries were impossible. This is why we cannot have pretty things. (The messages contain anti-counterfeiting modalities.)

      • StanChaz

        You have been drinking far too much champagne my dear fellow.

    • Dan Silverman

      Why does everything have to be so political?

      • Just call me Joe

        Athropogenic Global Warming is a political theory. The IPCC is a political organization. Researchers are funded by politicians.

        • 7eggert

          It’s a theory because anything beyond “je pense, donc je suis” is a theory – even “we live on earth” is a theory.

          It’s political because we have to do something about that – presumed there is a “we” “living” on that “thing” “we” “agreed” to call “earth”.

          • Victoria

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        • Genma_Saotome

          By your logic becoming educated is a political theory — Governments do pay for it.

          Science is science. Politics is what government does or does not do based on accepted science. For example, it was a political decision to build some nukes in WWII and use them but it was the science that explained that it could be done and ultimately figured out how to do it. The matters of climate we read about are the same — you just gotta ask yourself “Is this about science… or some opinion on how to react/what to do?”.

          For myself, there is a fair amount of good science going on. There are also a fair number of WAG’s called models. Hard to say if any are correct or if one is, which one. Then there is the politics and that ranges from don’t worry about it to everybody but my family and our political hacks should return to pre-industrial era lifestyles. All of those have only begun to be debated.

          • Just call me Joe

            “Hard to say if any are correct or if one is, which one.”
            None is correct. That is the problem.

          • StanChaz

            Science does not exist in a vacuum.
            Ask Galileo Galilei.

          • Lorie Franceschi

            Yes, the science figured out the nuclear bomb, but the government paid for it, thus it was made political.

      • Genma_Saotome

        He didn’t write anything political. He questioned science. Politics enters the discussion only when you start talking about what to do per what the science is telling you.

        As for his comment, IMO he is reading too much into the phrasing. The ocean currents are important to climate. So is the sun. So are the gases in the atmosphere. The result is a complex system of climate. You can’t focus on one and expect that understanding to explain everything else too. The system is far more complex than that.

        • StanChaz

          All science is political,
          and all politics is unscientific!

    • StanChaz

      We are talking about the difference between the forces that drive climate and what drives climate CHANGE –such as CO2 induced warming which causes variations in the AMOC because of density and salinity factors cause by that warming.

      • Just call me Joe

        Your statement is irrational, since the climate has been changing continuously since the formation of the earth.

    • Aaron

      It’s “irregular” overturning because it’s not occuring in the Labrador Sea where it has long been expected not because there’s no mechanism to explain the current. The data from east of Greenland are irregular or different than expectation just as the data from the Labrador Sea are iregular. The major part of the overturning is just taking place in a different location than expected.

  • Kurt Stocklmeir

    I live around Norfolk Va. I am always at the beach. There are currents of warm water that move past the east part of the U.S. a small distance from land. Warm water around Florida moves north. This helps to keep the east part of the U.S. warm in the winter. I think people say Europe does not have warm currents like the U.S. and that is why countries like England and France are extreme cold in the winter. I think some people will not say the Gulf Stream helps to keep England and France warm in the winter. I agree with them. I think it is dumb to say the water sinks when it gets cold – there is extreme cold water under that water That is like saying when extreme hot air has a small decrease of temperature it sinks into extreme cold air. A lot of times currents at the surface of the ocean are made by wind. Low pressure areas and high pressure areas go over the U.S. and end up over the Atlantic ocean. Wind associated with low pressure areas and high pressure areas move water north and south because air spins. I think most of the warm water moves north around the west part of the Atlantic ocean not the east part of the Atlantic ocean. I guess there could be a current that sends some water toward England and France but it is not going to be warm water. I do not agree with some things that the people said. Kurt Stocklmeir

  • Margie Cordoza

    I was raised in Aberdeen, Scotland, It is on the east coast of Scotland and the weather is affected by currents from the Arctic as opposed to the west coast of Britain where the coast is warmer as a result of the North Atlantic Current which brings warm water across the ocean from eastern America and the Gulf Stream. The variations in temperature between the east and the west coasts of Scotland as amazing considering the relatively small geographic distance. This can also be seen by the plants that grow naturally. Please look at all sorts of data before attacking this study.

  • Bill Gradwohl

    The nerve of these researchers! The science is settled! What are they doing mucking around trying to change facts?

    All of Climate Science has an understanding of the subject that’s not worth a nickle, but they speak loudly, write papers, declare they KNOW exactly what’s going on and demand more funding. I smell scam.

    • Lorie Franceschi

      They ask for money to do their research. Then they find something they think is important so they ask for more money to research it, because it is what the politicos want to hear.

    • Regret

      Science is never settled. Also, having nerve is the entire point of research, a scientist’s job description is “try to prove theories wrong”.

  • Bixbyte

    I have been studying climate and ocean currents for a short time. This Winter a southern hemisphere canonical type of El Nino are impacting the weather on the west and east coast of the United States.
    On the West Coast those hurricane force storms, wet and cool are made by this type of El Nino. On the East Coast, A Neutral Arctic Oscillator and Neutral North America Oscillator with the South Equator type of El Nino are drawing in Warm Weather to the East Coast. I can verify this information using Satellite images, daily El Nino Images and AO and NAO reports from the US Government. Weather is interesting and great when your forecast is accurate. Your article is Using the Salt Conveyor as a basis for heat transport this is old school.

    • StanChaz

      weather versus climate honey

    • Lorie Franceschi

      We have had a lot of El Minis and a lot of La Ninas. If you have been studying for just a short time, check to see if they are similar.

  • StanChaz

    Well if the AMOC suddenly shuts down due to global warming and cases a sudden ice age, we’ll still have AOC, thank god.

  • Lorie Franceschi

    And to think all of this climate change “snap” came from a paper two Russian scientist wrote way back in the 70’s70’s saying their research showed that the earth was coolling and we would soon be in another ice age. Of course they recanted their paper, but the damage had been done.

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  • Jim Fisher

    So some new data has emerged that has expanded knowledge to the point that conventional wisdom is being questioned. We are being told of a “eureka”. Is science trying to adapt incomplete observations from a nuanced system and trying to adapt this newfound information to a present paradigm?
    Asking for a friend .


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