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Cutting emissions makes North Atlantic focus of ocean heat uptake under global warming

Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences

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IMAGE: Cutting emissions makes the North Atlantic the focus of ocean heat uptake under global warming. view more 

Credit: Gang Huang

The Earth is getting warmer at a faster rate than ever. 93% of the net energy is absorbed by global ocean surface in the form of the Ocean Heat Uptake (OHU), which is the key factor modulating the rate of global warming.

The Southern Ocean (surrounding the Antarctic continent, south of 30°S ) plays a dominant role in global OHU while the North Atlantic takes a small share.

Future emissions of greenhouse gases (GHGs) and aerosols in the 21st century will be different from those in the historical period (since 1850), according to a new study published in Science Advances on Nov. 6.

The study was conducted by researchers from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IAP) of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and their collaborators from University of California Riverside (UCR).

The researchers revealed the effects of aerosols and GHGs on regional OHU under different future warming scenarios. Based on the target of the 2015 Paris Agreement that limits global warming of 1.5°C or 2°C above pre-industrial levels by 2100, the new study first found the hemispheric asymmetry of OHU and its reasons under a low-emission scenario.

It also found that during the 21st century, the projected OHU showed collectively positive trends in the North Atlantic and Southern Ocean under the high-emission scenario. While under the low-emission scenario, as compared to the negative long-term trend of Southern Ocean OHU, North Atlantic OHU had a positive long-term trend, which makes the North Atlantic the focus of global OHU in the future.

The opposite OHU trends in the Southern Ocean could be attributed partially to distinct GHG trajectories under the two scenarios. While the common positive OHU trends in the North Atlantic in the two scenarios were due to the total effects from anthropogenic aerosols and GHGs.

The researchers also presented that projected decline in anthropogenic aerosols induced a weakening of the AMOC and divergence of meridional ocean heat transport, which leads to enhanced OHU in the North Atlantic.

Previous studies have found that comparing to the historical period, from the middle to high emission scenarios, the North Atlantic OHU takes more and more percentages in global OHU while the Southern Ocean OHU takes less and less share even though the Southern Ocean still contributes most to global OHU. However, the regional OHU change under the low-emission scenario is not well understood.

"We discover an obvious hemispheric asymmetry in OHU under the low-emission scenario. In the long term, North Atlantic OHU keeps increasing and will become the main region of OHU. Our finding reveals the importance of aerosol effects and AMOC influences, which are helpful to the attribution of climate events," said the lead author Xiaofan Ma, a Ph.D. candidate from IAP.

"To sustain the balance of Earth's ecosystem, human societies have been taking measures to slow down the global warming. Our work shows the scientific significance of the low-warming target. It also helps us to better understand and project the climate change under low-emission scenarios," said the corresponding author Prof. Gang Huang from IAP.

Huang also noted that due to the limits of observations, these results rely on the climate model simulations. He looks forward to carrying out further studies with the development of ocean observation systems and datasets.

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