EGU General Assembly 2020
© Author(s) 2020. This work is distributed under
the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 License.

The impact of thermohaline staircases: estimates from a global analysis of Argo floats

Carine van der Boog1, Julie D Pietrzak1, Henk A Dijkstra2, and Caroline A Katsman1
Carine van der Boog et al.
  • 1Delft University of Technology, Civil Engineering and Geosciences, Environmental Fluid Mechanics, Delft, the Netherlands
  • 2Institute for Marine and Atmospheric research, Utrecht University, Utrecht, the Netherlands

Thermohaline staircases are stepped structures in the temperature and salinity stratification that result from double diffusive processes. In the open ocean, double diffusive processes enhance the downgradient diapycnal heat transfer compared to turbulent mixing. However, in combination with salinity effects, the resulting buoyancy flux within the thermohaline staircases is counter gradient. This vertical density transport strengthens the stratification and, consequently, affects the density of the water masses above and below the staircase layer. Although 44 percent of the world’s oceans is susceptible to double diffusion and thermohaline staircases are ubiquitous in these regions, the impact of double diffusion on diapycnal heat transfer and on water mass transformation has not been quantified yet. Here, we analyse a dataset of Argo float profiles to obtain a global overview of the occurrence of thermohaline staircases and to estimate their impact on diapycnal heat transfer and water mass transformation. Several regions with a high staircase occurrence are identified. Besides the well-known regions in the Caribbean Sea, the Mediterranean Sea and the subtropical Atlantic Ocean, our analysis reveals a new staircase region in the Indian Ocean. Using this global overview, we estimate, for the first time, the contribution of downgradient diapycnal heat transfer by the staircases. It appears that this contribution is very low compared to the dissipation required to maintain the observed temperature stratification. However, each staircase region can potentially impact the global circulation by affecting the density of the water masses above and below. In particular, the staircase region in the Indian Ocean overlies the waters of the Tasman Leakage. These waters flow westward from Australia towards the Agulhas region and affect the properties of waters entering the Atlantic Ocean. This implies that the vertical flux of salt into the Tasman Leakage waters induced by the presence of thermohaline staircases above can impact the salt transport into the Atlantic Ocean, which in turn is expected to impact the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation. 

How to cite: van der Boog, C., Pietrzak, J. D., Dijkstra, H. A., and Katsman, C. A.: The impact of thermohaline staircases: estimates from a global analysis of Argo floats, EGU General Assembly 2020, Online, 4–8 May 2020, EGU2020-13823,, 2020


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displays version 1 – uploaded on 01 May 2020
  • CC1: Comment on EGU2020-13823, Tiziana Ciuffardi, 04 May 2020

    Hi Carine, thank you for your contribution. In your uploaded presentation you stated you also  find NEW  ‘staircase  regions’, which potentially impacts the global circulation. Have you found any of them in the Mediterranean?

    • AC2: Reply to CC1, Carine van der Boog, 04 May 2020

      Hi Tiziana, thanks for your question. Yes, we did find thermohaline staircases in the salt-finger regime in the Mediterranean Sea.