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Observed changes in top-of-the-atmosphere radiation and upper-ocean heating consistent within uncertainty

Abstract

Global climate change results from a small yet persistent imbalance between the amount of sunlight absorbed by Earth and the thermal radiation emitted back to space1. An apparent inconsistency has been diagnosed between interannual variations in the net radiation imbalance inferred from satellite measurements and upper-ocean heating rate from in situ measurements, and this inconsistency has been interpreted as ‘missing energy’ in the system2. Here we present a revised analysis of net radiation at the top of the atmosphere from satellite data, and we estimate ocean heat content, based on three independent sources. We find that the difference between the heat balance at the top of the atmosphere and upper-ocean heat content change is not statistically significant when accounting for observational uncertainties in ocean measurements3, given transitions in instrumentation and sampling. Furthermore, variability in Earth’s energy imbalance relating to El Niño-Southern Oscillation is found to be consistent within observational uncertainties among the satellite measurements, a reanalysis model simulation and one of the ocean heat content records. We combine satellite data with ocean measurements to depths of 1,800 m, and show that between January 2001 and December 2010, Earth has been steadily accumulating energy at a rate of 0.50±0.43 Wm−2 (uncertainties at the 90% confidence level). We conclude that energy storage is continuing to increase in the sub-surface ocean.

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Figure 1: 0–700 m upper-ocean warming rates.
Figure 2: Variations in TOA radiation and ENSO during the past decade.
Figure 3: Comparison of net TOA flux and upper-ocean heating rates.

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Acknowledgements

We thank the CERES science, algorithm, and data management teams and the NASA Science Mission Directorate for supporting this research. J.M.L. and G.C.J. were funded by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Climate Program Office and NOAA Research. We thank S. Good at the UK Met Office for providing OHCA data from the Hadley Centre.

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N.G.L. led the writing and analysis, with writing and analysis contributions from J.M.L., R.P.A., T.W. and B.J.S. and writing contributions from G.C.J.

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Correspondence to Norman G. Loeb.

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The authors declare no competing financial interests.

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Loeb, N., Lyman, J., Johnson, G. et al. Observed changes in top-of-the-atmosphere radiation and upper-ocean heating consistent within uncertainty. Nature Geosci 5, 110–113 (2012). https://doi.org/10.1038/ngeo1375

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