What ocean heating reveals about global warming

Completely independently of this oceanographic data, a simple correlation analysis (Foster and Rahmstorf ERL 2011) showed that the flatter warming trend of the last 10 years was mostly a result of natural variability, namely the recently more frequent appearance of cold La Niña events in the tropical Pacific and a small contribution from decreasing solar activity.  The  effect of La Niña can be seen directly in the following figure, without any statistical analysis.  It shows the annual values of the global temperature with El Niño periods highlighted in red and La Niña periods in blue.  (Weekly updates on the current El Niño situation can be found here.)

Global surface temperature (average of the three series from NOAA, NASA and HadCRU).  Years influenced by El Niño are shown in red, La Niña influenced years in blue.  Source:  Climate Central, updated figure from the World Meteorological Organization (WMO) p. 15.

One finds that both the red El Niño years and the blue La Niña years are getting warmer, but given that we have lately experienced a cluster of La Niña years the overall warming trend over the last ten years is slower.  This can be thought of as the “noise” associated with natural variability, not a change in the “signal” of global warming (as discussed many times before here at RealClimate).

This is consistent with the finding that reduced warming is not mainly a result of a change in radiation balance but due to oceanic heat storage. During La Niña events (with cold ocean surface) the ocean absorbs additional heat that it releases during El Niño events (when the ocean surface is warm). The next El Niño event (whenever it comes – that is a stochastic process) is likely to produce a new global mean temperature record (as happened in 2010).

Kevin Trenberth, who has recently published a paper on this topic, explains the increased heat uptake in the deep ocean:

The reason for the change is a specific change in the winds, especially in the subtropical Pacific, where the trade winds have become noticeably stronger.  That altered ocean currents, strengthening the subtropical sea water circulation thus providing a mechanism to transport heat into the deeper ocean.  This is related to the decadal weather pattern in the Pacific associated with the La Niña phase of the El Niño phenomenon. 

New results from climate modelling

A study by Kosaka and Xie recently published in Nature confirms that the slowing rise in global temperatures during recent years has been a result of prevalent La Niña periods in the tropical Pacific.  The authors write in the abstract:

Our results show that the current hiatus is part of natural climate variability tied specifically to a La Niña like decadal cooling. 

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