Articles | Volume 8, issue 2
Research article
20 Mar 2012
Research article |  | 20 Mar 2012

Systematic study of the impact of fresh water fluxes on the glacial carbon cycle

N. Bouttes, D. M. Roche, and D. Paillard

Abstract. During glacial periods, atmospheric CO2 concentration increases and decreases by around 15 ppm. At the same time, the climate changes gradually in Antarctica. Such climate changes can be simulated in models when the AMOC (Atlantic Meridional Oceanic Circulation) is weakened by adding fresh water to the North Atlantic. The impact on the carbon cycle is less straightforward, and previous studies give opposite results. Because the models and the fresh water fluxes were different in these studies, it prevents any direct comparison and hinders finding whether the discrepancies arise from using different models or different fresh water fluxes.

In this study we use the CLIMBER-2 coupled climate carbon model to explore the impact of different fresh water fluxes. In both preindustrial and glacial states, the addition of fresh water and the resulting slow-down of the AMOC lead to an uptake of carbon by the ocean and a release by the terrestrial biosphere. The duration, shape and amplitude of the fresh water flux all have an impact on the change of atmospheric CO2 because they modulate the change of the AMOC. The maximum CO2 change linearly depends on the time integral of the AMOC change. The different duration, amplitude, and shape of the fresh water flux cannot explain the opposite evolution of ocean and vegetation carbon inventory in different models. The different CO2 evolution thus depends on the AMOC response to the addition of fresh water and the resulting climatic change, which are both model dependent. In CLIMBER-2, the rise of CO2 recorded in ice cores during abrupt events can be simulated under glacial conditions, especially when the sinking of brines in the Southern Ocean is taken into account. The addition of fresh water in the Southern Hemisphere leads to a decline of CO2, contrary to the addition of fresh water in the Northern Hemisphere.