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Multiple equilibria of the global thermohaline circulation

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Marotzke, J., & Willebrand, J. (1991). Multiple equilibria of the global thermohaline circulation. Journal of Physical Oceanography, 21(9), 1372-1385. doi:10.1175/1520-0485(1991)021<1372:MEOTGT>2.0.CO;2.

A general circulation model with a highly idealized geometry is used to investigate which fundamentally different equilibria of the global thermohaline circulation may exist. The model comprises two identical basins representing the Atlantic and Pacific oceans, which are connected by a circumpolar channel in the south. The model circulation is driven, in addition to wind forcing, by restoring the sea surface temperature to prescribed values and specified freshwater fluxes in the surface salinity budget (mixed boundary conditions). The boundary conditions are symmetric with respect to the equator and identical for both oceans. Four fundamentally different, stable steady states are found under the same set of boundary conditions. Two of the equilibria show both oceans in the same state, with high-latitude deep-water formation occuring either in both northern or in both southern oceans, respectively. Two additional equilibria exist in which the thermohaline circulations of the basins differ fundamentally from each other: one ocean forms deep water at northern high latitudes, while the other has a much weaker circulation with sinking in the Southern Hemisphere. One of these equilibria qualitatively corresponds to today's global thermohaline circulation pattern (conveyor belt). It is demonstrated that a transition from one equilibrium to another can be accomplished by relatively small differences in the freshwater fluxes. The preference and sensitivity of the steady states depends critically on the freshwater forcing applied.