Optimal excitation of interannual atlantic meridional overturning circulation variability

Laure Zanna, Patrick Heimbach, Andrew M. Moore, Eli Tziperman

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review


The optimal excitation of Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (MOC) anomalies is investigated in an ocean general circulation model with an idealized configuration. The optimal three-dimensional spatial structure of temperature and salinity perturbations, defined as the leading singular vector and generating the maximum amplification of MOC anomalies, is evaluated by solving a generalized eigenvalue problem using tangent linear and adjoint models. Despite the stable linearized dynamics, a large amplification of MOC anomalies, mostly due to the interference of nonnormal modes, is initiated by the optimal perturbations. The largest amplification of MOC anomalies, found to be excited by high-latitude deep density perturbations in the northern part of the basin, is achieved after about 7.5 years. The anomalies grow as a result of a conversion of mean available potential energy into potential and kinetic energy of the perturbations, reminiscent of baroclinic instability. The time scale of growth of MOC anomalies can be understood by examining the time evolution of deep zonal density gradients, which are related to the MOC via the thermal wind relation. The velocity of propagation of the density anomalies, found to depend on the horizontal component of the mean flow velocity and the mean density gradient, determines the growth time scale of the MOC anomalies and therefore provides an upper bound on the MOC predictability time. The results suggest that the nonnormal linearized ocean dynamics can give rise to enhanced MOC variability if, for instance, overflows, eddies, and/or deep convection can excite high-latitude density anomalies in the ocean interior with a structure resembling that of the optimal perturbations found in this study. The findings also indicate that errors in ocean initial conditions or in model parameterizations or processes, particularly at depth, may significantly reduce the AtlanticMOC predictability time to less than a decade.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)413-427
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number2
StatePublished - Jan 2011


  • Anomalies
  • Atlantic Ocean
  • Interannual variability
  • Meridional overturning circulation
  • Ocean dynamics

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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