IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability Possible changes in the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (MOC)

The sensitivity of the North Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (MOC) (cf., WGI AR4 Glossary; Bindoff et al., 2007 Box 5.1) to anthropogenic forcing is regarded as a key vulnerability due to the potential for sizeable and abrupt impacts (Tol, 1998; Keller et al., 2000; Mastrandrea and Schneider, 2001; Alley et al., 2003; Rahmstorf et al., 2003; Link and Tol, 2004, 2006; Higgins and Schneider, 2005; Sathaye et al., 2007).

Palaeo-analogues and model simulations show that the MOC can react abruptly and with a hysteresis response, once a certain forcing threshold is crossed (Randall et al., 2007; Meehl et al., 2007). Estimates of the forcing threshold that would trigger large-scale and persistent MOC changes rely on three main lines of evidence. The first, based on the analysis of coupled Atmosphere-Ocean General Circulation Models (AOGCMs), do not show MOC collapse in the 21st century (Meehl et al., 2007 Box 10.1). Assessing the confidence in this is, however, difficult, as these model runs sample only a subset of potentially relevant uncertainties (e.g., Challenor et al., 2006) and do not cross the forcing thresholds suggested by the second line of evidence: simulations using Earth system models of intermediate complexity (EMICs) (Randall et al., 2007 Section 8.8.3; Meehl et al., 2007 10.3.4). EMIC simulations, which use simplified representations of processes to explore a wider range of uncertainties, suggest that the probability that forcing would trigger an MOC threshold response during the 21st century could exceed estimates derived from AOGCM runs alone (e.g., Challenor et al., 2006). The third line of evidence, not assessed by Working Group I, relies on expert elicitations (sometimes combined with the analysis of simple climate models). These MOC projections show a large spread, with some suggesting a substantial likelihood of triggering a MOC threshold response within this century (Arnell et al., 2005; Rahmstorf and Zickfeld, 2005; McInerney and Keller, 2006; Schlesinger et al., 2006; Yohe et al., 2006).

Potential impacts associated with MOC changes include reduced warming or (in the case of abrupt change) absolute cooling of northern high-latitude areas near Greenland and north-western Europe, an increased warming of Southern Hemisphere high latitudes, tropical drying (Vellinga and Wood, 2002, 2006; Wood et al., 2003, 2006), as well as changes in marine ecosystem productivity (Schmittner, 2005), terrestrial vegetation (Higgins and Vellinga, 2004), oceanic CO2 uptake (Sarmiento and Le Quéré, 1996), oceanic oxygen concentrations (Matear and Hirst, 2003) and shifts in fisheries (Keller et al., 2000; Link and Tol, 2004). Adaptation to MOC-related impacts is very likely to be difficult if the impacts occur abruptly (e.g., on a decadal time-scale). Overall, there is high confidence in predictions of a MOC slowdown during the 21st century, but low confidence in the scale of climate change that would cause an abrupt transition or the associated impacts (Meehl et al., 2007 Section 10.3.4). However, there is high confidence that the likelihood of large-scale and persistent MOC responses increases with the extent and rate of anthropogenic forcing (e.g., Stocker and Schmittner, 1997; Stouffer and Manabe, 2003).