October 12, 2023
Research Highlight

Active Ocean Dynamical Adjustment Plays No Role in Southern Ocean Heat Storage

A modeling study finds that multiple factors almost perfectly balance under anthropogenic greenhouse gas forcing, leaving no footprint on the dynamically induced ocean heat storage in the Southern Ocean

A photograph of an iceberg on a frosty coast, all surrounded by light.

The Southern Ocean is our planet’s primary storage of heat and carbon.

The Science                                

The world’s ocean takes up more than 90% of the excess heat and a third of the additional carbon dioxide generated by burning fossil fuels. How the changes in ocean circulation, especially the overturning component in the Southern Ocean (SO), contribute to ocean heat uptake and storage is still unclear. Using an innovative, partial coupling technique, a group of climate researchers strive to isolate the ocean circulation change, or active ocean dynamical component, from the passive component in the total ocean heat uptake and associated redistribution of ocean heat storage.

The Impact

Estimates show that the SO, south of 30°S, stores about 75% of the global ocean heat uptake. However, among those there is almost no contribution from the ocean dynamical adjustment to the forcing of increasing carbon dioxide concentrations. The ocean dynamically induced heat convergence/divergence is nearly perfectly balanced by the surface fluxes. The perfect balance epitomizes the “redistributive” effect of the ocean dynamical feedback dubbed in the climate change research community, where the ocean circulation change acts only to redistribute the heat in the ocean. If this result holds for the real climate, it simplifies the problem of the ocean heat uptake and allows researchers to focus on passive ocean heat uptake processes.


In response to a fourfold increase in carbon dioxide, the SO absorbs excess heat around 60°S and releases some back to the atmosphere at around 45°S. The northward ocean heat transport (OHT) plays a major role in this redistribution. However, the relative roles of the mean ocean circulation and ocean circulation changes in the uptake and redistribution of heat in the SO remain controversial. Using a novel partial coupling technique, researchers are able to separate the roles of mean ocean circulation (passive component) and ocean circulation change (active component). The mean ocean circulation and ocean circulation change are of equal importance for the ocean heat uptake: the divergence of the passive OHT acts to balance the passive surface heat gain to the south of ~50°S, while the convergence of the active OHT acts to balance the active surface heat loss to the north of ~50°S. Interestingly, the active OHT plays a purely redistributive role, resulting in no net change in ocean heat storage. Both the active and passive ocean heat transports in the SO are overcompensated by the reverse atmospheric heat transport via the Bjerknes compensation mechanism.

PNNL Contact

Hailong Wang, Pacific Northwest National Laboratory, hailong.wang@pnnl.gov


This research is supported by the Department of Energy, Office of Science, Biological and Environmental Research program as part of the Regional and Global Model Analysis program area. X. Li, Y. Luo, and F. Liu are supported by the National Key Research and Development Program of China (2018YFA0605702) and the National Natural Science Foundation of China (NSFC; 41976006 and 41906002).

Published: October 12, 2023

Li, Q, Y. Luo, J. Lu, F. Liu. 2023. “The role of ocean circulation in Southern Ocean heat uptake, transport, and storage response to quadrupled CO2,” Journal of Climate, 35, (2022). [DOI: 10.1175/JCLI-D-22-0160.1]