On the history of meridional overturning circulation schematic diagrams Academic Article uri icon


  • Recent global warming caused by humans and the prediction of a reduced Atlantic Ocean meridional overturning circulation in the future has increased interest in the role of the overturning circulation in climate change. A schematic diagram of the overturning circulation called the “Great Ocean Conveyor Belt,” published by Wallace Broecker in 1987, has become a popular image that emphasizes the inter-connected ocean circulation and the northward flux of heat in the Atlantic. This would appear to be a good time to review the development of the conveyor belt concept and summarize the history of overturning circulation schematics. In the nineteenth century it was thought that symmetric overturning circulation cells were located on either side of the equator in the Atlantic. As new hydrographic measurements were obtained in the late nineteenth century and early twentieth century, circulation schematics in the early twentieth century began to show the inter-hemispheric overturning circulation in the Atlantic. In the second half of the twentieth century schematics showed the global ocean overturning circulation including connections between the Atlantic and the Pacific and Indian Oceans. Some recent schematics of the overturning circulation show its complexities, but as more information is included these schematics have also become complex and not as easy to understand as the simple Broecker 1987 version.

publication date

  • March 2008