The Danger of Tipping Points in the Ocean's Major Circulation

The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) is a large ocean circulation system that carries warm surface waters from the tropics to the northern latitudes, where they release heat to the atmosphere and then sink as cold and dense water back into the ocean. This circulation is a major driver of climate in the North Atlantic and globally.

The AMOC has two tipping points: one associated with the large-scale salt transport and the other with the convective mixing that drives the circulation. These tipping points pose a risk of abrupt climate change as the planet is pushed further out of the stable Holocene climate into uncharted territory.

The salt transport tipping point, described by US oceanographer Henry Stommel in 1961, occurs when the AMOC becomes less salty, leading to a feedback loop that slows down the circulation. This can occur due to increased rainfall or glacial meltwater in the northern Atlantic. In the bistable regime, the AMOC can be permanently turned off by a temporary increase in freshwater. Climate models suggest that this tipping point is close, and the AMOC is highly vulnerable to rapid climate change.

The second tipping point, based on convective mixing, was discovered by Swedish oceanographer Pierre Welander in 1982. This mixing process can also be abruptly shut down due to increased freshwater in the northern Atlantic.

These tipping points present a major risk as we push the planet further out of the stable Holocene climate into uncharted waters. The AMOC has been unstable in the past, leading to some of the most dramatic and abrupt climate shifts known. Climate models suggest that the AMOC is close to a tipping point, and its vulnerability to rapid climate change is high.

As we continue to experiment with the Earth's climate, it is crucial to consider the potential impacts of tipping points on the AMOC and take action to mitigate climate change and its unintended consequences.

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