Oceanic variability on interannual, interdecadal, and longer timescales plays a key role in climate variability and climate change. Paleoclimatic records suggest major changes in the location and rate of deepwater formation in the Atlantic and Southern oceans on timescales from millennia to millions of years. Instrumental records of increasing duration and spatial coverage document substantial variability in the path and intensity of ocean surface currents on timescales of months to decades. We review recent theoretical and numerical results that help explain the physical processes governing the large-scale ocean circulation and its intrinsic variability. To do so, we apply systematically the methods of dynamical systems theory. The dynamical systems approach is proving successful for more and more detailed and realistic models, up to and including oceanic and coupled ocean-atmosphere general circulation models. In this approach one follows the road from simple, highly symmetric model solutions, through a “bifurcation tree,” toward the observed, complex behavior of the system under investigation. The observed variability can be shown to have its roots in simple transitions from a circulation with high symmetry in space and regularity in time to circulations with successively lower symmetry in space and less regularity in time. This road of successive bifurcations leads through multiple equilibria to oscillatory and eventually chaotic solutions. Key features of this approach are illustrated in detail for simplified models of two basic problems of the ocean circulation. First, a barotropic model is used to capture major features of the wind-driven ocean circulation and of the changes in its behavior as wind stress increases. Second, a zonally averaged model is used to show how the thermohaline ocean circulation changes as buoyancy fluxes at the surface increase. For the wind-driven circulation, multiple separation patterns of a “Gulf-Stream like” eastward jet are obtained. These multiple equilibria are followed by subannual and interannual oscillations of the jet and of the entire basin's circulation. The multiple equilibria of the thermohaline circulation include deepwater formation near the equator, near either pole or both, as well as intermediate possibilities that bear some degree of resemblance to the currently observed Atlantic overturning pattern. Some of these multiple equilibria are subject, in turn, to oscillatory instabilities with timescales of decades, centuries, and millennia. Interdecadal and centennial oscillations are the ones of greatest interest in the current debate on global warming and on the relative roles of natural and anthropogenic variability in it. They involve the physics of the truly three-dimensional coupling between the wind-driven and thermohaline circulation. To arrive at this three-dimensional picture, the bifurcation tree is sketched out for increasingly complex models for both the wind-driven and the thermohaline circulation.
The mid-latitude ocean's response to time-dependent zonal wind-stress forcing is studied using a reduced-gravity, 1.5-layer, shallow-water model in two rectangular ocean basins of different sizes. The small basin is 1000 km $\times$ 2000 km and the larger one is 3000 km $\times$ 2010 km; the aspect ratio of the larger basin is quite similar to that of the North Atlantic between 20$\deg$N and 60$\deg$N. The parameter dependence of the model solutions and their spatio-temporal variability subject to time-independent wind stress forcing serve as the reference against which the results for time-dependent forcing are compared. For the time-dependent forcing case, three zonal-wind profiles that mimic the seasonal cycle are considered in this study: (1) a fixed-profile wind-stress forcing with periodically varying intensity; (2) a wind-stress profile with fixed intensity, but north–south migration of the mid-latitude westerly wind maximum; and (3) a north–south migrating profile with periodically varying intensity. Results of the small-basin simulations show the intrinsic variability found for time-independent forcing to persist when the intensity of the wind forcing varies periodically. It thus appears that the physics behind the upper ocean's variability is mainly controlled by internal dynamics, although the solutions’ spatial patterns are now more complex, due to the interaction between the external and internal modes of variability. The north–south migration of wind forcing, however, does inhibit the inertial recirculation; its suppression increases with the amplitude of north–south migration in the wind-stress forcing. Model solutions in the larger rectangular basin and at smaller viscosity exhibit more realistic recirculation gyres, with a small meridional-to-zonal aspect ratio, and an elongated eastward jet; the low-frequency variability of these solutions is dominated by periodicities of 14 and 6–7 years. Simulations performed in this setting with a wind-stress profile that involves seasonal variations of realistic amplitude in both the intensity and the position of the atmospheric jet show the seven-year periodicity in the oceanic circulation to be robust. The intrinsic variability is reinforced by the periodic variations in the jet's intensity and weakened by periodic variations in the meridional position; the two effects cancel, roughly speaking, thus preserving the overall characteristics of the seven-year mode.
A novel mechanism of decadal midlatitude coupled variability, which crucially depends on the nonlinear dynamics of both the atmosphere and the ocean, is presented. The coupled model studied involves quasigeostrophic atmospheric and oceanic components, which communicate with each other via a constant-depth oceanic mixed layer. A series of coupled and uncoupled experiments show that the decadal coupled mode is active across parameter ranges that allow the bimodality of the atmospheric zonal flow to coexist with oceanic turbulence. The latter is most intense in the regions of inertial recirculation (IR). Bimodality is associated with the existence of two distinct anomalously persistent zonal-flow modes, which are characterized by different latitudes of the atmospheric jet stream. The IR reorganizations caused by transitions of the atmosphere from its high- to low-latitude state and vice versa create sea surface temperature anomalies that tend to induce transition to the opposite atmospheric state. The decadal–interdecadal time scale of the resulting oscillation is set by the IR adjustment; the latter depends most sensitively on the oceanic bottom drag. The period T of the nonlinear oscillation is 7–25 yr for the range of parameters explored, with the most realistic parameter values yielding T \approx 20 yr. Aside from this nonlinear oscillation, an interannual Rossby wave mode is present in all coupled experiments. This coupled mode depends neither on atmospheric bimodality, nor on ocean eddy dynamics; it is analogous to the mode found previously in a channel configuration. Its time scale in the model with a closed ocean basin is set by cross-basin wave propagation and equals 3–5 yr for a basin width comparable with the North Atlantic.