Interglacial instability of North Atlantic Deep Water ventilation

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Science  27 Mar 2020:
Vol. 367, Issue 6485, pp. 1485-1489
DOI: 10.1126/science.aay6381

Disrupting deep circulation

Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) and the related process of North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) have been thought to be stable during warm, interglacial periods. Galaasen et al. report that episodes of reduced NADW over the past 500,000 years actually have been relatively common and occasionally long-lasting features of interglacials and that they can occur independently of the catastrophic freshwater outburst floods normally thought to be their cause (see the Perspective by Stocker). This discovery implies that large NADW disruptions might be more likely than we have assumed in the warmer climate of the future.

Science, this issue p. 1485; see also p. 1425


Disrupting North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) ventilation is a key concern in climate projections. We use (sub)centennially resolved bottom water δ13C records that span the interglacials of the last 0.5 million years to assess the frequency of and the climatic backgrounds capable of triggering large NADW reductions. Episodes of reduced NADW in the deep Atlantic, similar in magnitude to glacial events, have been relatively common and occasionally long-lasting features of interglacials. NADW reductions were triggered across the range of recent interglacial climate backgrounds, which demonstrates that catastrophic freshwater outburst floods were not a prerequisite for large perturbations. Our results argue that large NADW disruptions are more easily achieved than previously appreciated and that they occurred in past climate conditions similar to those we may soon face.

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