The drivers of projected North Atlantic sea level change
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To link to this article DOI: 10.1007/s00382-013-1973-8
Sea level change predicted by the CMIP5 atmosphere–ocean general circulation models (AOGCMs) is not spatially homogeneous. In particular, the sea level change in the North Atlantic is usually characterised by a meridional dipole pattern with higher sea level rise north of 40°N and lower to the south. The spread among models is also high in that region. Here we evaluate the role of surface buoyancy fluxes by carrying out simulations with the FAMOUS low-resolution AOGCM forced by surface freshwater and heat flux changes from CO2-forced climate change experiments with CMIP5 AOGCMs, and by a standard idealised surface freshwater flux applied in the North Atlantic. Both kinds of buoyancy flux change lead to the formation of the sea level dipole pattern, although the effect of the heat flux has a greater magnitude, and is the main cause of the spread of results among the CMIP5 models. By using passive tracers in FAMOUS to distinguish between additional and redistributed buoyancy, we show that the enhanced sea level rise north of 40°N is mainly due to the direct steric effect (the reduction of sea water density) caused by adding heat or freshwater locally. The surface buoyancy forcing also causes a weakening of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, and the consequent reduction of the northward ocean heat transport imposes a negative tendency on sea level rise, producing the reduced rise south of 40°N. However, unlike previous authors, we find that this indirect effect of buoyancy forcing is generally less important than the direct one, except in a narrow band along the east coast of the US, where it plays a major role and leads to sea level rise, as found by previous authors.