Letter

135 years of global ocean warming between the Challenger expedition and the Argo Programme

  • Nature Climate Change volume 2, pages 425428 (2012)
  • doi:10.1038/nclimate1461
  • Download Citation
Received:
Accepted:
Published:

Abstract

Changing temperature throughout the oceans is a key indicator of climate change. Since the 1960s about 90% of the excess heat added to the Earth’s climate system has been stored in the oceans1,2. The ocean’s dominant role over the atmosphere, land, or cryosphere comes from its high heat capacity and ability to remove heat from the sea surface by currents and mixing. The longest interval over which instrumental records of subsurface global-scale temperature can be compared is the 135 years between the voyage of HMS Challenger3 (1872–1876) and the modern data set of the Argo Programme4 (2004–2010). Argo’s unprecedented global coverage permits its comparison with any earlier measurements. This, the first global-scale comparison of Challenger and modern data, shows spatial mean warming at the surface of 0.59 °C±0.12, consistent with previous estimates5 of globally averaged sea surface temperature increase. Below the surface the mean warming decreases to 0.39 °C±0.18 at 366 m (200 fathoms) and 0.12 °C±0.07 at 914 m (500 fathoms). The 0.33 °C±0.14 average temperature difference from 0 to 700 m is twice the value observed globally in that depth range over the past 50 years6, implying a centennial timescale for the present rate of global warming. Warming in the Atlantic Ocean is stronger than in the Pacific. Systematic errors in the Challenger data mean that these temperature changes are a lower bound on the actual values. This study underlines the scientific significance of the Challenger expedition and the modern Argo Programme and indicates that globally the oceans have been warming at least since the late-nineteenth or early-twentieth century.

  • Subscribe to Nature Climate Change for full access:

    $59

    Subscribe

Additional access options:

Already a subscriber?  Log in  now or  Register  for online access.

References

  1. 1.

    et al. Anthropogenic warming of Earth’s climate system. Science 292, 267–270 (2001).

  2. 2.

    et al. in IPCC Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis (eds Solomon, S. et al.) (Cambridge Univ. Press, 2007).

  3. 3.

    & The Voyage of H.M.S. Challenger 1873–1876. Narrative Vol. I. First Part. Ch. III (Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1885); available at .

  4. 4.

    et al. Argo profiling floats bring new era of in situ ocean observations. Eos 85, 179–191 (2004).

  5. 5.

    & Improved extended reconstruction of SST (1854–1997). J. Clim. 17, 2466–2477 (2004).

  6. 6.

    et al. Global ocean heat content 1955–2008 in light of recently revealed instrumentation problems. Geophys. Res. Lett. 36, L07608 (2009).

  7. 7.

    The Challenger expedition. Nature 7, 385–388 (1873).

  8. 8.

    The cruise of the Challenger. Nature 14, 93–105 (1876).

  9. 9.

    , & The Oceans, Their Physics, Chemistry, and General Biology (Englewood Cliffs, 1942).

  10. 10.

    in Wissenschaftliche Ergebnisse der Deutschen Atlantischen Expedition auf dem Forschungs und Vermessungsschiff OEOEMeteor2 1925–1927 Vol. 6, First Part (ed. Emery, W. J.) (Amerind, 1978).

  11. 11.

    Soundings taken during the Discovery investigations, 1932–39. Discovery Rep. 25, 39–106 (1948).

  12. 12.

    Atlantic Ocean Atlas of Temperature and Salinity Profiles and Data from the International Geophysical Year of 1957–19581–209 (Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution Atlas Series 1, 1960).

  13. 13.

    in Evolution of Physical Oceanography: Scientific Surveys in Honor of Henry Stommel (eds Warren, B. A. & Wunsch, C.) 342–374 (MIT Press, 1981).

  14. 14.

    & The 2004–2008 mean and annual cycle of temperature, salinity, and steric height in the global ocean from the Argo Program. Prog. Oceanogr. 82, 81–100 (2009).

  15. 15.

    et al. A Pacific decadal climate oscillation with impacts on salmon. Bull. Am. Met. Soc. 78, 1069–1079 (1997).

  16. 16.

    A North Atlantic climate pacemaker for the centuries. Science 288, 1984–1985 (2000).

  17. 17.

    & Warming of global abyssal and deep Southern Ocean waters between the 1990s and 2000s: Contributions to global heat and sea level rise budgets. J. Clim. 23, 6336–6351 (2010).

  18. 18.

    & Report on the Scientific Results of the Voyage of HMS Challenger during the years 1872–76. First Part (HM Stationery Office, 1895); available at .

  19. 19.

    The Pressure Errors of the Challenger Thermometers, Narr. Chall. Exp. Vol. II, Appendix A (HM Stationary Office, 1882).

  20. 20.

    Decadal-scale temperature trends in the Southern Hemisphere ocean. J. Clim. 21, 4749–4765 (2008).

  21. 21.

    The ocean and William Leighton Jordan, Esq. (eds Luyten, J. & Hogg, N.) Oceanus 35, 80–91 (1992).

  22. 22.

    & Climatic warming of Atlantic intermediate waters. J. Clim. 14, 4091–4108 (2001).

  23. 23.

    , & Thermosteric sea level rise, 1955–2003. Geophys. Res. Lett. 32, L12602 (2005).

  24. 24.

    et al. Improved estimates of upper-ocean warming and multi-decadal sea level rise. Nature 453, 1090–1093 (2008).

  25. 25.

    et al. Revisiting the Earth’s sealevel and energy budgets from 1961 to 2008. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L18601 (2011).

  26. 26.

    & A 20th century acceleration in global sea-level rise. Geophys. Res. Lett. 33, L01602 (2006).

  27. 27.

    , , & Recent global sea level acceleration started over 200 years ago? Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L08715 (2008).

  28. 28.

    , , & Global surface layer salinity change detected by Argo and its implication for hydrological cycle intensification. J. Oceanogr. 65, 579–586 (2009).

  29. 29.

    & Fifty-year trends in global ocean salinities and their relationship to broad-scale warming. J. Clim. 23, 4342–4362 (2010).

  30. 30.

    & The global ocean imprint of ENSO. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L13606 (2011).

Download references

Acknowledgements

We acknowledge the beginning of global oceanography by HMS Challenger and the 140th anniversary in 2012 of its departure from Sheerness, Kent, UK, on 7 December 1872. The Argo data used here were collected and are made freely available by the International Argo Programme and by the national programmes that contribute to it. D.R. and J.G. and their part in the Argo Programme were supported by US Argo through NOAA grant NA17RJ1231 (SIO–JIMO).

Author information

Affiliations

  1. Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California San Diego, La Jolla, California 92093-0230, USA

    • Dean Roemmich
    •  & John Gilson
  2. National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, European Way, Southampton SO14 3ZH, UK

    • W. John Gould

Authors

  1. Search for Dean Roemmich in:

  2. Search for W. John Gould in:

  3. Search for John Gilson in:

Contributions

D.R. conceived the study, directed the analysis and was lead writer. W.J.G. surveyed the Challenger reports, extracted the data and wrote parts of the manuscript. J.G. carried out the calculations, including averaging and interpolation of Argo data and error estimates, created figures and contributed manuscript revisions.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Dean Roemmich.

Supplementary information