Why ocean heat transport warms the global mean climate

Celine Herweijer, Richard Seager, Michael Winton, Amy Clement

Research output: Contribution to journalReview articlepeer-review

50 Scopus citations


Observational and modelling evidence suggest that poleward ocean heat transport (OHT) can vary in response to both natural climate variability and greenhouse warming. Recent modelling studies have shown that increased OHT warms both the tropical and global mean climates. Using two different coupled climate models with mixed-layer oceans, with and without OHT, along with a coupled model with a fixed-current ocean component in which the currents are uniformly reduced and increased by 50%, an attempt is made to explain why this may happen. OHT warms the global mean climate by 1 to 1.6 K in the atmospheric general circulation (AGCM) ML model and 3.5 K in the AGCM fixed current model. In each model the warming is attributed to an increase in atmospheric greenhouse trapping, primarily clear-sky greenhouse trapping, and a reduction in albedo. This occurs as OHT moistens the atmosphere, particularly at subtropical latitudes. This is not purely a thermodynamic response to the reduction in planetary albedo at these latitudes. It is a change in atmospheric circulation that both redistributes the water vapour and allows for a global atmospheric moistening - a positive 'dynamical' water vapour feedback. With increasing OHT the atmospheric water vapour content increases as atmospheric convection spreads out of the deep tropics. The global mean planetary albedo is decreased with increased OHT. This change is explained by a decrease in subtropical and mid-latitude low cloudiness, along with a reduction in high-latitude surface albedo due to decreased sea ice. The climate models with the mixed layer oceans underestimate both the subtropical low cloud cover and the high-latitude sea ice/surface albedo, and consequently have a smaller warming response to OHT.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)662-675
Number of pages14
JournalTellus, Series A: Dynamic Meteorology and Oceanography
Issue number4
StatePublished - Aug 2005

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Oceanography
  • Atmospheric Science


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