Reviews of Geophysics

On the North Atlantic Circulation


  • William J. Schmitz Jr.,

  • Michael S. McCartney


A new, speculative, and, we hope, provocative summary of the North Atlantic circulation is described, including both horizontal currents (wind-driven) and the primarily (thermohaline) meridional flows that involve the transformation of warm to cold water at high latitudes. Our picture is based on a synthesis of a variety of independent investigations that are contained in the literature as opposed to a presentation of the results of one technique or the point of view of one author. We describe a thermohaline cell (the so-called thermohaline conveyor belt) that is concentrated within the Atlantic and Southern oceans (rather than essentially global), with the most important upwelling sites being in the circumpolar and the equatorial current regimes. We concentrate on deep water formation and its replacement relative to intermediate-water formation. It has been pointed out recently that the formation of 13 Sv (1 Sv = 106 m³ s−1) of southward flowing North Atlantic Deep Water is compensated for in the upper ocean by northward cross-equatorial transport. We suggest that this thermocline layer flow passes through the Straits of Florida, transits the Gulf Stream system on its inshore side, and exits through the North Atlantic Current system after recirculation and modification. There is now a clear observational basis for the structure of recirculating gyres on the southern and northern sides of the Gulf Stream. We suggest a recirculation for the North Atlantic Current as well. We also describe a C-shaped component to the southern Gulf Stream recirculation and identify a roughly 10-Sv circulation in the eastern North Atlantic associated with the Azores Current. Recirculations play an important role in deep boundary current regimes and in water mass formation and modification. The transport of the deep western and northern boundary currents in the North Atlantic Ocean may be boosted (roughly doubled or tripled) by counterclockwise recirculating gyres and by additions of modified bottom or intermediate water. While the North Atlantic is the most completely observed ocean, there are still significant gaps in our knowledge of its circulation.