From the Eocene (~50 million years ago) to today, Southern Ocean circulation has evolved from the existence of two ocean gyres to the dominance of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC). It has generally been thought that the opening of Southern Ocean gateways in the late Eocene, in addition to the alignment of westerly winds with these gateways or the presence of Antarctic ice sheet, was a sufficient requirement for the transition to an ACC of similar strength to its modern equivalent. Nevertheless, models representing these changes produce only a much weaker ACC. Here we show, using an eddying ocean model, that the missing ingredient in the transition to a modern ACC is deep convection around the Antarctic continent. This deep convection is caused by cold temperatures and high salinities due to sea-ice production around the Antarctic continent, leading to both the formation of Antarctic Bottom Water and a modern-strength ACC.
During the Eocene-Oligocene transition, the meridional overturning circulation underwent large changes, associated with the geological evolution of Southern Ocean gateways. These are crucial for the Cenozoic climate transition from Greenhouse to Icehouse, but their dynamics still remain elusive. We demonstrate, using an idealised eddying ocean model, that the opening of a gateway leads to an abrupt onset of a vigorous, deep-reaching, meridional overturning circulation. This meridional overturning circulation has a maximum transport for a shallow gateway, and decreases with further deepening of the gateway. This abrupt change in the meridional overturning circulation can be explained through the ability with which standing meanders -- turbulent features located downstream of the gateway -- can induce deep vertical heat transport at high latitudes where bottom waters are produced. Our results demonstrate the crucial role of turbulent processes, associated with tectonic evolution, in setting the strength of the global ocean's deep-reaching meridional overturning circulation.
Ambiguity over the Eocene opening times of the Tasman Gateway and Drake Passage makes it difficult to determine the initiation time of the Antarctic Circumpolar Current (ACC). If the Tasman Gateway opened later than Drake Passage, then Australia may have prevented the proto-ACC from forming. Recent modelling results have shown that only a relatively weak circumpolar transport results under Eocene surface forcing. This leads to warm and buoyant coastal water around Antarctica, which may impede the formation of deep waters and convective processes. This suggests that a change in deep water formation might be required to increase the density contrast across the Southern Ocean and increase circumpolar transport. Here we use a simple reduced gravity model with two basins, to represent the Atlantic and the Pacific. This fixes the density difference between surface and deep water and allows us to isolate the impact of deep water formation on circumpolar transport. With no obstacle on the southern boundary the circumpolar current increases its transport from 82.3 to 270.0 Sv with deep water formation. Placing an Antipodean landmass on the southern boundary reduces this transport as the landmass increases in size. However, circumpolar flow north of this landmass remains a possibility even without deep water formation. Weak circumpolar transport continues until the basin is completely blocked by the Antipodes. When the Antipodes is instead allowed to split from the southern boundary, circumpolar transport recovers to its unobstructed value. Flow rapidly switches to south of the Antipodes when the gateway is narrow.