Articles | Volume 9, issue 3
Research article
25 Jun 2013
Research article |  | 25 Jun 2013

A volcanically triggered regime shift in the subpolar North Atlantic Ocean as a possible origin of the Little Ice Age

C. F. Schleussner and G. Feulner

Abstract. Among the climatological events of the last millennium, the Northern Hemisphere Medieval Climate Anomaly succeeded by the Little Ice Age are of exceptional importance. The origin of these regional climate anomalies remains a subject of debate and besides external influences like solar and volcanic activity, internal dynamics of the climate system might have also played a dominant role. Here, we present transient last millennium simulations of the fully coupled model of intermediate complexity Climber 3α forced with stochastically reconstructed wind-stress fields. Our results indicate that short-lived volcanic eruptions might have triggered a cascade of sea ice–ocean feedbacks in the North Atlantic, ultimately leading to a persistent regime shift in the ocean circulation. We find that an increase in the Nordic Sea sea-ice extent on decadal timescales as a consequence of major volcanic eruptions in our model leads to a spin-up of the subpolar gyre and a weakened Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, eventually causing a persistent, basin-wide cooling. These results highlight the importance of regional climate feedbacks such as a regime shift in the subpolar gyre circulation for understanding the dynamics of past and future climate.