Articles | Volume 13, issue 2
Research article
21 Apr 2017
Research article |  | 21 Apr 2017

Large-scale forcing of the European Slope Current and associated inflows to the North Sea

Robert Marsh, Ivan D. Haigh, Stuart A. Cunningham, Mark E. Inall, Marie Porter, and Ben I. Moat

Abstract. The European Slope Current provides a shelf-edge conduit for Atlantic Water, a substantial fraction of which is destined for the northern North Sea, with implications for regional hydrography and ecosystems. Drifters drogued at 50 m in the European Slope Current at the Hebridean shelf break follow a wide range of pathways, indicating highly variable Atlantic inflow to the North Sea. Slope Current pathways, timescales and transports over 1988–2007 are further quantified in an eddy-resolving ocean model hindcast. Particle trajectories calculated with model currents indicate that Slope Current water is largely recruited from the eastern subpolar North Atlantic. Observations of absolute dynamic topography and climatological density support theoretical expectations that Slope Current transport is to first order associated with meridional density gradients in the eastern subpolar gyre, which support a geostrophic inflow towards the slope. In the model hindcast, Slope Current transport variability is dominated by abrupt 25–50 % reductions of these density gradients over 1996–1998. Concurrent changes in wind forcing, expressed in terms of density gradients, act in the same sense to reduce Slope Current transport. This indicates that coordinated regional changes of buoyancy and wind forcing acted together to reduce Slope Current transport during the 1990s. Particle trajectories further show that 10–40 % of Slope Current water is destined for the northern North Sea within 6 months of passing to the west of Scotland, with a general decline in this percentage over 1988–2007. Salinities in the Slope Current correspondingly decreased, evidenced in ocean analysis data. Further to the north, in the Atlantic Water conveyed by the Slope Current through the Faroe–Shetland Channel (FSC), salinity is observed to increase over this period while declining in the hindcast. The observed trend may have broadly compensated for a decline in the Atlantic inflow, limiting salinity changes in the northern North Sea during this period. Proxies for both Slope Current transport and Atlantic inflow to the North Sea are sought in sea level height differences across the FSC and between Shetland and the Scottish mainland (Wick). Variability of Slope Current transport on a wide range of timescales, from seasonal to multi-decadal, is implicit in sea level differences between Lerwick (Shetland) and Tórshavn (Faroes), in both tide gauge records from 1957 and a longer model hindcast spanning 1958–2012. Wick–Lerwick sea level differences in tide gauge records from 1965 indicate considerable decadal variability in the Fair Isle Current transport that dominates Atlantic inflow to the northwest North Sea, while sea level differences in the hindcast are dominated by strong seasonal variability. Uncertainties in the Wick tide gauge record limit confidence in this proxy.

Short summary
To the west of Britain and Ireland, a strong ocean current follows the steep slope that separates the deep Atlantic and the continental shelf. This “Slope Current” exerts an Atlantic influence on the North Sea and its ecosystems. Using a combination of computer modelling and archived data, we find that the Slope Current weakened over 1988–2007, reducing Atlantic influence on the North Sea, due to a combination of warming of the subpolar North Atlantic and weakening winds to the west of Scotland.