Abyssal ocean overturning slowdown and warming driven by Antarctic meltwater

Nature. 2023 Mar;615(7954):841-847. doi: 10.1038/s41586-023-05762-w. Epub 2023 Mar 29.


The abyssal ocean circulation is a key component of the global meridional overturning circulation, cycling heat, carbon, oxygen and nutrients throughout the world ocean1,2. The strongest historical trend observed in the abyssal ocean is warming at high southern latitudes2-4, yet it is unclear what processes have driven this warming, and whether this warming is linked to a slowdown in the ocean's overturning circulation. Furthermore, attributing change to specific drivers is difficult owing to limited measurements, and because coupled climate models exhibit biases in the region5-7. In addition, future change remains uncertain, with the latest coordinated climate model projections not accounting for dynamic ice-sheet melt. Here we use a transient forced high-resolution coupled ocean-sea-ice model to show that under a high-emissions scenario, abyssal warming is set to accelerate over the next 30 years. We find that meltwater input around Antarctica drives a contraction of Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW), opening a pathway that allows warm Circumpolar Deep Water greater access to the continental shelf. The reduction in AABW formation results in warming and ageing of the abyssal ocean, consistent with recent measurements. In contrast, projected wind and thermal forcing has little impact on the properties, age and volume of AABW. These results highlight the critical importance of Antarctic meltwater in setting the abyssal ocean overturning, with implications for global ocean biogeochemistry and climate that could last for centuries.

Publication types

  • Research Support, U.S. Gov't, Non-P.H.S.
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Acceleration
  • Antarctic Regions
  • Climate Change
  • Freezing*
  • Hot Temperature*
  • Oceans and Seas*
  • Seawater* / analysis
  • Seawater* / chemistry
  • Uncertainty
  • Water Movements*