Observation-based estimates of volume, heat, and freshwater exchanges between the subpolar North Atlantic interior, its boundary currents, and the atmosphere

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The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC) transports heat and salt between the tropical Atlantic and Arctic oceans. The interior of the North Atlantic subpolar gyre (SPG) is responsible for the much of the water mass transformation in the AMOC, and the export of this water to intensified boundary currents is crucial for projecting air-sea interaction onto the strength of the AMOC. However, the magnitude and location of exchange between the SPG and the boundary remains unclear. We present a novel climatology of the SPG boundary using quality-controlled CTD (conductivity-temperature-depth) and Argo hydrography, defining the SPG interior as the oceanic region bounded by 47°N and the 1000 m isobath. From this hydrography we find geostrophic flow out of the SPG around much of the boundary with minimal seasonality. The horizontal density gradient is reversed around western Greenland, where the geostrophic flow is into the SPG. Surface Ekman forcing drives net flow out of the SPG in all seasons with pronounced seasonality, varying between 2.45 ± 0.73 Sv in the summer and 7.70 ± 2.90 Sv in the winter. We estimate heat advected into the SPG to be between 0.14 ± 0.05 PW in the winter and 0.23 ± 0.05 PW in the spring, and freshwater advected out of the SPG to be between 0.07 ± 0.02 Sv in the summer and 0.15 ± 0.02 Sv in the autumn. These estimates approximately balance the surface heat and freshwater fluxes over the SPG domain. Overturning in the SPG varies seasonally, with a minimum of 6.20 ± 1.40 Sv in the autumn and a maximum of 10.17 ± 1.91 Sv in the spring, with surface Ekman the most likely mediator of this variability. The density of maximum overturning is at 27.30 kg m-3, with a second, smaller maximum at 27.54 kg m-3. Upper waters (σ0<27.30 kg m-3) are transformed in the interior then exported as either intermediate water (27.30-27.54 kg m-3) in the North Atlantic Current (NAC) or as dense water (σ0>27.54 kg m-3) exiting to the south. Our results support the present consensus that the formation and pre-conditioning of Subpolar Mode Water in the north-eastern Atlantic is a key determinant of AMOC strength.

Original languageEnglish
Pages (from-to)169-192
Number of pages24
JournalOcean Science
Issue number1
Publication statusPublished - 22 Feb 2023


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