Letter | Published:

Robust warming of the global upper ocean

Nature volume 465, pages 334337 (20 May 2010) | Download Citation

Abstract

A large (1023 J) multi-decadal globally averaged warming signal in the upper 300 m of the world’s oceans was reported roughly a decade ago1 and is attributed to warming associated with anthropogenic greenhouse gases2,3. The majority of the Earth’s total energy uptake during recent decades has occurred in the upper ocean3, but the underlying uncertainties in ocean warming are unclear, limiting our ability to assess closure of sea-level budgets4,5,6,7, the global radiation imbalance8 and climate models5. For example, several teams have recently produced different multi-year estimates of the annually averaged global integral of upper-ocean heat content anomalies (hereafter OHCA curves) or, equivalently, the thermosteric sea-level rise5,9,10,11,12,13,14,15,16. Patterns of interannual variability, in particular, differ among methods. Here we examine several sources of uncertainty that contribute to differences among OHCA curves from 1993 to 2008, focusing on the difficulties of correcting biases in expendable bathythermograph (XBT) data. XBT data constitute the majority of the in situ measurements of upper-ocean heat content from 1967 to 2002, and we find that the uncertainty due to choice of XBT bias correction dominates among-method variability in OHCA curves during our 1993–2008 study period. Accounting for multiple sources of uncertainty, a composite of several OHCA curves using different XBT bias corrections still yields a statistically significant linear warming trend for 1993–2008 of 0.64 W m-2 (calculated for the Earth’s entire surface area), with a 90-per-cent confidence interval of 0.53–0.75 W m-2.

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Acknowledgements

J.M.L. and G.C.J. were funded by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program Office and NOAA Research. S.A.G., M.D.P. and D.M.S. were supported by the Joint DECC and Defra Integrated Climate Programme DECC/Defra (GA01101). C. Domingues, S. Levitus, T. Boyer, M. Ferrante and D. Trossman provided comments. C. Domingues, S. Levitus, and T. Boyer also provided corrected XBT profiles. This is Pacific Marine Environment Laboratory contribution number 3476 and Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research contribution number 09-372.

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

    • John M. Lyman
  2. NOAA/Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, Seattle, Washington 98115-6349, USA

    • John M. Lyman
    •  & Gregory C. Johnson
  3. Met Office Hadley Centre, Exeter EX1 3PB, UK

    • Simon A. Good
    • , Matthew D. Palmer
    •  & Doug M. Smith
  4. KlimaCampus, University of Hamburg, Grindelberg 5, 20144 Hamburg, Germany

    • Viktor V. Gouretski
  5. Climate Research Department, Meteorological Research Institute, 1-1 Nagamine, Tsukuba, Ibaraki 305-0052, Japan

    • Masayoshi Ishii
  6. Japan Agency for Marine-Earth Science and Technology, 3173-25 Showa-machi, Kanazawa-ku, Yokohama 236-0001, Japan

    • Masayoshi Ishii
  7. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, California 91109, USA

    • Josh K. Willis

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Contributions

J.M.L. led the writing and analysis, with writing contributions from G.C.J., J.K.W., M.D.P. and S.A.G., and analysis contributions from S.A.G., V.V.G., M.I., M.D.P., D.M.S. and J.K.W.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to John M. Lyman.

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    Supplementary Information

    This file contains Supplementary Methods, References, Supplementary Table S1 and Supplementary Figure S1 with legend.

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https://doi.org/10.1038/nature09043

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