Increase in Agulhas leakage due to poleward shift of Southern Hemisphere westerlies

Nature. 2009 Nov 26;462(7272):495-8. doi: 10.1038/nature08519.


The transport of warm and salty Indian Ocean waters into the Atlantic Ocean-the Agulhas leakage-has a crucial role in the global oceanic circulation and thus the evolution of future climate. At present these waters provide the main source of heat and salt for the surface branch of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (MOC). There is evidence from past glacial-to-interglacial variations in foraminiferal assemblages and model studies that the amount of Agulhas leakage and its corresponding effect on the MOC has been subject to substantial change, potentially linked to latitudinal shifts in the Southern Hemisphere westerlies. A progressive poleward migration of the westerlies has been observed during the past two to three decades and linked to anthropogenic forcing, but because of the sparse observational records it has not been possible to determine whether there has been a concomitant response of Agulhas leakage. Here we present the results of a high-resolution ocean general circulation model to show that the transport of Indian Ocean waters into the South Atlantic via the Agulhas leakage has increased during the past decades in response to the change in wind forcing. The increased leakage has contributed to the observed salinification of South Atlantic thermocline waters. Both model and historic measurements off South America suggest that the additional Indian Ocean waters have begun to invade the North Atlantic, with potential implications for the future evolution of the MOC.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Africa
  • Atlantic Ocean
  • Computer Simulation
  • Foraminifera
  • Indian Ocean
  • Salinity
  • Seawater / analysis*
  • Seawater / chemistry
  • Temperature
  • Water Movements*
  • Wind*