How northern freshwater input can stabilise thermohaline circulation
Peer reviewed, Journal article
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- Geophysical Institute 
The North Atlantic thermohaline circulation (THC) carries heat and salt towards the Arctic. This circulation is partly sustained by buoyancy loss and is generally believed to be inhibited by northern freshwater input as indicated by the ‘box-model’ of Stommel (1961). The inferred freshwater-sensitivity of the THC, however, varies considerably between studies, both quantitatively and qualitatively. The northernmost branch of the Atlantic THC, which forms a double estuarine circulation in the Arctic Mediterranean, is one example where both buoyancy loss and buoyancy gain facilitate circulation. We have built on Stommel’s original concept to examine the freshwater-sensitivity of a double estuarine circulation. The net inflow into the double estuary is found to be more sensitive to a change in the distribution of freshwater than to a change in the total freshwater input. A double estuarine circulation is more stable than a single overturning, requiring a larger amount and more localised freshwater input into regions of buoyancy loss to induce a thermohaline ‘collapse’. For the Arctic Mediterranean, these findings imply that the Atlantic inflow may be relatively insensitive to increased freshwater input. Complementing Stommel’s thermal and haline flow regimes, the double estuarine circulation allows for a third: the throughflow regime. In this regime, a THC with warm poleward surface flow can be sustained without production of dense water; a decrease in high-latitude dense water formation does therefore not necessarily affect regional surface conditions as strongly as generally thought.