Evaluating the uncertainty induced by the virtual salt flux assumption in climate simulations and future projections

Jianjun Yin, Ronald J. Stouffer, Michael J. Spelman, Stephen M. Griffies

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

29 Scopus citations


The unphysical virtual salt flux (VSF) formulation widely used in the ocean component of climate models has the potential to cause systematic and significant biases in modeling the climate system and projecting its future evolution. Here a freshwater flux (FWF) and a virtual salt flux version of the Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory Climate Model version 2.1 (GFDL CM2.1) are used to evaluate and quantify the uncertainties induced by the VSF formulation. Both unforced and forced runs with the two model versions are performed and compared in detail. It is found that the differences between the two versions are generally small or statistically insignificant in the unforced control runs and in the runs with a small external forcing. In response to a large external forcing, however, some biases in the VSF version become significant, especially the responses of regional salinity and global sea level. However, many fundamental aspects of the responses differ only quantitatively between the two versions. An unexpected result is the distinctly different ENSO responses. Under a strong external freshwater forcing, the great enhancement of the ENSO variability simulated by the FWFversion does not occur in the VSF version and is caused by the overexpansion of the top model layer. In summary, the principle assumption behind using virtual salt flux is not seriously violated and the VSF model has the ability to simulate the current climate and project near-term climate evolution. For some special studies such as a large hosing experiment, however, both the VSF formulation and the use of the FWF in the geopotential coordinate ocean model could have some deficiencies and one should be cautious to avoid them.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)80-96
Number of pages17
JournalJournal of Climate
Issue number1
StatePublished - Jan 2010

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Atmospheric Science


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