What ocean heating reveals about global warming

Ideologically motivated “climate skeptics” know that these data contradict their claims, and respond … by rejecting the measurements. Millions of stations are dismissed as “negligible” – the work of generations of oceanographers vanish with a journalist’s stroke of a pen because what should not exist, cannot be. “Climate skeptics’” web sites even claim that the measurement uncertainty in the average of 3000 Argo probes is the same as that from each individual one.  Thus not only are the results of climate research called into question, but even the elementary rules of uncertainty calculus that every science student learns in their first semester.  Anything goes when you have to deny global warming.  Even more bizarre is the Star Trek argument – but let me save that for later.

Slowdown in the upper ocean

Let us look at the upper ocean (for historic reasons defined as the upper 700 m):

Change in the heat content of the upper 700 m of the oceans.  Source: NOAA

And here is the direct comparison since 1980:

Changes in the heat content of the oceans.  Source:  Abraham et al., 2013.  The 2-sigma uncertainty for 1980 is 2 x 1022 J and for recent years 0.5 x 1022 J

We see two very interesting things.

First:  Roughly two thirds of the warming since 1980 occurred in the upper ocean.  The heat content of the upper layer has gone up twice as much as in the lower layer (700 – 2000 m).  The average temperature of the upper layer has increased more than three times as much as the lower (because the upper layer is only 700 m thick, and the lower one 1300 m).  That is not surprising, as after all the ocean is heated from above and it takes time for the heat to penetrate deeper.

Second:  In the last ten years the upper layer has warmed more slowly than before.  In spite of this the temperature still is changing as rapidly there as in the lower layer.  This recent slower warming in the upper ocean is closely related to the slower warming of the global surface temperature, because the temperature of the overlaying atmosphere is strongly coupled to the temperature of the ocean surface.

That the heat absorption of the ocean as a whole (at least to 2000 m) has not significantly slowed makes it clear that the reduced warming of the upper layer is not (at least not much) due to decreasing heating from above, but rather mostly due to greater heat loss to lower down:  through the 700 m level, from the upper to the lower layer.  (The transition from solar maximum to solar minimum probably also contributed a small part as planetary heat absorption decreased by about 15%, Abraham, et al., 2013).  It is difficult to establish the exact mechanism for this stronger heat flux to deeper water, given the diverse internal variability in the oceans.

Association with El Niño

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