Irreversible Ocean Thermal Expansion under Carbon Dioxide Removal

Peer reviewed: 
Yes, item is peer reviewed.
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Final version published as: 

Ehlert, D. and Zickfeld, K.: Irreversible ocean thermal expansion under carbon dioxide removal, Earth Syst. Dynam., 9, 197–210, DOI: 10.5194/esd-9-197-2018, 2018.

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In the Paris Agreement in 2015 countries agreed on holding global mean surface air warming to “well below 2 ◦C above pre-industrial” levels, but the emission reduction pledges under that agreement are not ambitious enough to meet this target. Therefore, the question arises of whether restoring global warming to this target after exceeding it by artificially removing CO2 from the atmosphere is possible. One important aspect is the reversibility of ocean heat uptake and associated sea level rise, which have very long (centennial to millennial) response timescales. In this study the response of sea level rise due to thermal expansion to a 1 % yearly increase of atmospheric CO2 up to a quadrupling of the pre-industrial concentration followed by a 1 % yearly decline back to the pre-industrial CO2 concentration is examined using the University of Victoria Earth System Climate Model (UVic ESCM). We find that global mean thermosteric sea level (GMTSL) continues to rise for several decades after atmospheric CO2 starts to decline and does not return to pre-industrial levels for over 1000 years after atmospheric CO2 is restored to the pre-industrial concentration. This finding is independent of the strength of vertical sub-grid-scale ocean mixing implemented in the model. Furthermore, GMTSL rises faster than it declines in response to a symmetric rise and decline in atmospheric CO2 concentration partly because the deep ocean continues to warm for centuries after atmospheric CO2 returns to the pre-industrial concentration. Both GMTSL rise and decline rates increase with increasing vertical ocean mixing. Exceptions from this behaviour arise if the overturning circulations in the North Atlantic and Southern Ocean intensify beyond pre-industrial levels in model versions with lower vertical mixing, which leads to rapid cooling of the deep ocean.

Document type: 
Natural Sciences and Engineering Research Council of Canada (NSERC)