Skip to main content

Thank you for visiting You are using a browser version with limited support for CSS. To obtain the best experience, we recommend you use a more up to date browser (or turn off compatibility mode in Internet Explorer). In the meantime, to ensure continued support, we are displaying the site without styles and JavaScript.

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


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.

Access options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.


All prices are NET prices.

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.


  1. 1

    Hansen, J. et al. Earth’s energy imbalance: Confirmation and implications. Science 308, 1431–1435 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2

    Trenberth, K. E. & Fasullo, J. T. Tracking earth’s energy. Science 328, 316–317 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. 3

    Lyman, J. M. et al. Robust warming of the global upper ocean. Nature 465, 334–337 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4

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

    Google Scholar 

  5. 5

    Wong, T. et al. Reexamination of the observed decadal variability of the Earth radiation budget using altitude-corrected ERBE/ERBS nonscanner WFOV data. J. Clim. 19, 4028–4040 (2006).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. 6

    Minnis, P. et al. Radiative climate forcing by the Mount Pinatubo eruption. Science 259, 1411–1415 (1993).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. 7

    Soden, B. J. et al. Quantifying climate feedbacks using radiative kernels. J. Clim. 21, 3504–3520 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. 8

    Trenberth, K. E. & Fasullo, J. T. Tracking Earth’s energy: From El Niño to global warming. Surv. Geophys. (2011).

  9. 9

    Katsman, C. A. & van Oldenborgh, G. J. Tracing the upper ocean’s “missing heat”. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L14610 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  10. 10

    Meehl, G. A., Arbalster, J. M., Fasullo, J. T., Hu, A. & Trenberth, K. E. Model-based evidence of deep-ocean heat uptake during surface-temperature hiatus periods. Nature Climate Change 1229, 360–364 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. 11

    Hansen, J., Sato, M., Kharecha, P. & von Schuckmann, K. Earth’s energy imbalance and implications. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 11, 13421–13449 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. 12

    Boyer, T. P. et al. in NOAA Atlas NESDIS 66 (ed. Levitus, S.) (U.S. Gov. Printing Office, 2009) DVDs.

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13

    Roemmich, D. et al. Argo: The challenge of continuing 10 years of progress. Oceanography 22, 46–55 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. 14

    Johnson, G. C. et al. Ocean heat content. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 92, S81–S84 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15

    von Schuckmann, K., Gaillard, F. & Le Traon, P.-Y. Global hydrographic variability patterns during 2003–2008. J. Geophys. Res. 114, C09007 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. 16

    Wielicki, B. et al. Clouds and the Earth’s Radiant Energy System (CERES): An earth observing system experiment. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 77, 853–868 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. 17

    Kopp, G., Lawrence, G. & Rottman, G. The Total Irradiance Monitor (TIM): Science results. Sol. Phys. 230, 129–139 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. 18

    Loeb, N. G. et al. Multi-instrument comparison of top-of-atmosphere reflected solar radiation. J. Clim. 20, 575–591 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. 19

    Loeb, N. G. et al. Toward optimal closure of the earth’s top-of-atmosphere radiation budget. J. Clim. 22, 748–766 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20

    Loeb, N. G. et al. Advances in understanding top-of-atmosphere radiation variability from satellite observations. Surv. Geophys. (in the press, 2011).

  21. 21

    Lyman, J. M. Estimating Global Energy Flow from the Global Upper Ocean. Surv. Geophys. (2011).

  22. 22

    Purkey, S. G. & Johnson, G. C. 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).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. 23

    Palmer, M. D., McNeall, D. J. & Dunstone, N. J. Importance of the deep ocean for estimating decadal changes in Earth’s radiation balance. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L13707 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. 24

    Dee, D. P., Uppala, S. M., Simmons, A. J. & Berrisford, P. et al. The ERA-Interim reanalysis: Configuration and performance of the data assimilation system. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 137, 553–597 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. 25

    Meehl, G. A. et al. THE WCRP CMIP3 multimodel dataset: A new era in climate change research. Bull. Am. Meteorol. Soc. 88, 1383–1394 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  26. 26

    Lyman, J. M. & Johnson, G. C. Estimating annual global upper-ocean heat content anomalies despite irregular in situ ocean sampling. J. Clim. 21, 5629–5641 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  27. 27

    Trenberth, K. E. An imperative for climate change planning: Tracking Earth’s global energy. Curr. Opin. Environ. Sustainability 1, 19–27 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. 28

    Johnson, D. R. et al. in NODC Internal Report 20 (ed. Levitus, S.) (NOAA Printing Office, Available at (2009).

  29. 29

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

    Google Scholar 

  30. 30

    Palmer, M. D., Haines, K., Tett, S. F. B. & Ansell, T. J. Isolating the signal of ocean global warming. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L23610 (2007).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information




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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Norman G. Loeb.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 736 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

Further reading


Quick links

Nature Briefing

Sign up for the Nature Briefing newsletter — what matters in science, free to your inbox daily.

Get the most important science stories of the day, free in your inbox. Sign up for Nature Briefing