The role of the oceans in climate

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The ocean is increasingly seen as a vital component of the climate system. It exchanges with the atmosphere large quantities of heat, water, gases, particles and momentum. It is an important part of the global redistribution of heat from tropics to polar regions keeping our planet habitable, particularly equatorward of about 30°. In this article we review recent work examining the role of the oceans in climate, focusing on research in the Third Assessment Report of the IPCC and later. We discuss the general nature of oceanic climate variability and the large role played by stochastic variability in the interaction of the atmosphere and ocean. We consider the growing evidence for biogeochemical interaction of climatic significance between ocean and atmosphere. Air-sea exchange of several radiatively important gases, in particular CO2, is a major mechanism for altering their atmospheric concentrations. Some more reactive gases, such as dimethyl sulphide, can alter cloud formation and hence albedo. Particulates containing iron and originating over land can alter ocean primary productivity and hence feedbacks to other biogeochemical exchanges. We show that not only the tropical Pacific Ocean basin can exhibit coupled ocean-atmosphere interaction, but also the tropical Atlantic and Indian Oceans. Longer lived interactions in the North Pacific and Southern Ocean (the circumpolar wave) are also reviewed. The role of the thermohaline circulation in long-term and abrupt climatic change is examined, with the freshwater budget of the ocean being a key factor for the degree, and longevity, of change. The potential for the Mediterranean outflow to contribute to abrupt change is raised. We end by examining the probability of thermohaline changes in a future of global warming.
Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)1127-1159
Number of pages33
JournalInternational Journal of Climatology
Issue number10
Publication statusPublished - 2003

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