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My oh Miocene!

Guest commentary by Sarah Feakins

Our recent study in Nature Geoscience reconstructed conditions at the Antarctic coast during a warm period of Earth’s history. Today the Ross Sea has an ice shelf and the continent is ice covered; but we found the Antarctic coast was covered with tundra vegetation for some periods between 20 million and 15.5 million years ago. These findings are based on the isotopic composition of plant leaf waxes in marine sediments.

That temperatures were warm at that time was not a huge surprise; surprising, was how much warmer things were – up to 11ºC (20ºF) warmer at the Antarctic coast! We expected to see polar amplification, i.e. greater changes towards the poles as the planet warms. This study found those coastal temperatures to be as warm as 7ºC or 45ºF during the summer months. This is a surprise because conventional wisdom has tended to think of Antarctica being getting progressively colder since ice sheets first appeared on Antarctica 34 million years ago (but see Ruddiman (2010) for a good discussion of some of the puzzles).
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  1. S.J. Feakins, S. Warny, and J. Lee, "Hydrologic cycling over Antarctica during the middle Miocene warming", Nature Geosci, vol. 5, pp. 557-560, 2012.
  2. W.F. Ruddiman, "A Paleoclimatic Enigma?", Science, vol. 328, pp. 838-839, 2010.

Far out in North Carolina

Filed under: — stefan @ 24 June 2012

The extensive salt marshes on the Outer Banks of Carolina offer ideal conditions for unravelling the mysteries of sea level change during past centuries. Here is a short report from our field work there – plus some comments on strange North Carolina politics as well as two related new papers published today in Nature Climate Change.

The Outer Banks of Carolina are particularly vulnerable to coastal erosion and sea-level rise, partly because the land is subsiding and the banks are naturally moving landward. On the ocean front, land is continually being lost.
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OHC Model/Obs Comparison Errata

Filed under: — gavin @ 22 May 2012

This is just a brief note to point out that a few graphs that I have put together showing Ocean Heat Content changes in recent decades had an incorrect scaling for the GISS model data. My error was in assuming that the model output (which were in units W yr/m2) were scaled for the ocean area only, when in fact they were scaled for the entire global surface area (see fig. 2 in Hansen et al, 2005). Therefore, in converting to units of 1022 Joules for the absolute ocean heat content change, I had used a factor of 1.1 (0.7 x 5.1 x 365 x 3600 x 24 x 10-8), instead of the correct value of 1.61 (5.1 x 365 x 3600 x 24 x 10-8). This problem came to light while we were redoing this analysis for the CMIP5 models and from conversations with dana1981 at

These graphs appeared in Dec 2009, May 2010, Jan 2011 and Feb 2012. In each case, I have replaced the graph with a corrected version while leaving a link to the incorrect version. Links to the figures will return the corrected image (and this is noted on the image itself). Where possible I used the data that were current at the time of the original post. Fortunately this only affects the figures used in these blog postings and not in any publications. Apologies for any confusion.

This figure shows the comparison using the most up-to-date observational products (NODC, PMEL):

The basic picture is unchanged – model simulations were able to capture the historical variance in OHC (as best we know it now – there remains significant structural uncertainty in those estimates). There are clear dips related volcanic eruptions (Agung, El Chichon, Pinatubo), and an sharp increase in the 1990s. Note that in GISS-EH (same AGCM but with a different ocean model) OHC increases at a slightly slower rate than seen with GISS-ER above. Looking at the last decade, it is clear that the observed rate of change of upper ocean heat content is a little slower than previously (and below linear extrapolations of the pre-2003 model output), and it remains unclear to what extent that is related to a reduction in net radiative forcing growth (due to the solar cycle, or perhaps larger than expected aerosol forcing growth), or internal variability, model errors, or data processing – arguments have been made for all four, singly and together.

Analyses of the CMIP5 models will provide some insight here since the historical simulations have been extended to 2012 (including the last solar minimum), and have updated aerosol emissions. Watch this space.


  1. J. Hansen, "Earth's Energy Imbalance: Confirmation and Implications", Science, vol. 308, pp. 1431-1435, 2005.

Another fingerprint

Filed under: — rasmus @ 20 May 2012

When my kids were younger, they asked me why the ocean was blue. I would answer that the ocean mirrors the blue sky. However, I would not think much more about it, even though it is well-known that the oceans represent the most important source for atmospheric moisture. They also play an important role for many types of internal variations, such as the El Nino Southern Oscillation. Now a new study by Durack et al. (2012) has been published in Science that presents the relationship between the oceans and the atmosphere.

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  1. P.J. Durack, S.E. Wijffels, and R.J. Matear, "Ocean Salinities Reveal Strong Global Water Cycle Intensification During 1950 to 2000", Science, vol. 336, pp. 455-458, 2012.

Global warming and ocean heat content

Filed under: — gavin @ 3 October 2011

The connection between global warming and the changes in ocean heat content has long been a subject of discussion in climate science. This was explicitly discussed in Hansen et al, 1997 where they predicted that over the last few decades of the 20th Century, there should have been a significant increase in ocean heat content (OHC). Note that at the time, there had not been any observational estimate of that change (the first was in 2000 (Levitus et al, 2000)), giving yet another example of a successful climate model prediction. At RC, we have tracked the issue multiple times e.g. 2005, 2008 and 2010. Over the last few months, though, there have been a number of new papers on this connection that provide some interesting perspective on the issue which will certainly continue as the CMIP5 models start to get analysed.
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  1. S. Levitus, "Warming of the World Ocean", Science, vol. 287, pp. 2225-2229, 2000.

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