Imperfections of the thermohaline circulation: Latitudinal asymmetry and preferred northern sinking

Henk A. Dijkstra and J. David Neelin
J. Climate, 13, 366-382, 2000.
Paper (PDF 260Kb)
© Copyright 2000 by the American Meteorological Society.

Abstract. The present Atlantic thermohaline circulation is dominated by deep water formation in the north despite the fact that surface buoyancy forcing has relatively modest latitudinal asymmetry. Many studies have shown that even with buoyancy forcing that is symmetric about the equator, spontaneous symmetry breaking can produce a single overturning cell with intense sinking in the north. This occurs by salt advection at sufficiently large freshwater forcing. In this symmetry-breaking case, a southern sinking solution and a symmetric solution are also possible. A simple coupled ocean-atmosphere model of the zonally averaged thermohaline circulation is used to examine the effect of latitudinal asymmetries in the boundary conditions. The greater continental area in the northern hemisphere, combined with the slight asymmetry in the observed fresh-water flux, induce a strong preference for the northern sinking solution. Examining the relation to the solution under symmetric conditions, the salt-advection mechanism still acts to enhance the overturning circulation of the northern sinking branch, but multiple equilibria are much less likely to occur within the realistic parameter range. The most plausible shift between equilibria for paleoclimate applications would be between a strong northern sinking branch and a weak northern sinking branch that is an asymmetric version of the thermally driven solution. However, this is possible only in a very limited range of parameters. There is a substantial parameter range where the northern sinking branch is unique. The role of the fractional region of air-sea interaction at each latitude is substantial in producing north-south asymmetry.

Citation. Dijkstra, H.~A. and J.~D. Neelin, 2000: Imperfections of the thermohaline circulation: Latitudinal asymmetry and preferred northern sinking. J. Climate, 13, 366-382.

Acknowledgements. All computations were performed on the CRAY C98 at the Academic Computing Centre (SARA), Amsterdam, the Netherlands within the project SC212. Use of these computing facilities was sponsored by the Stichting Nationale Supercomputer faciliteiten (National Computing Facilities Foundation, NCF) with financial support from the Netherlands Organization for Scientific Research (N.W.O). This work was initiated and completed during visits of HD to UCLA in 1996 and 1997 and sponsored by NSF grant ATM-9521389 and an N.W.O PIONIER-grant. Thanks are due to Richard Bintanja and Jan de Wolde (both I.M.A.U.) for providing the data for Fig. 3 and to Wilbert Weijer (I.M.A.U.) for providing the data in Fig. 7 and the fresh-water flux fit (10). This is IGPP Contribution Number 4892.

© Copyright 2000 American Meteorological Society (AMS). Permission to use figures, tables, and brief excerpts from this work in scientific and educational works is hereby granted provided that the source is acknowledged. Any use of material in this work that is determined to be "fair use" under Section 107 of the U.S. Copyright Act September 2010 Page 2 or that satisfies the conditions specified in Section 108 of the U.S. Copyright Act (17 USC 108, as revised by P.L. 94-553) does not require the AMS's permission. Republication, systematic reproduction, posting in electronic form, such as on a web site or in a searchable database, or other uses of this material, except as exempted by the above statement, requires written permission or a license from the AMS. Additional details are provided in the AMS Copyright Policy, available on the AMS Web site located at ( or from the AMS at 617-227-2425 or