Letter | Published:

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

Nature Geoscience volume 5, pages 110113 (2012) | Download Citation


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 optionsAccess options

Rent or Buy article

Get time limited or full article access on ReadCube.

from $8.99

All prices are NET prices.


  1. 1.

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

  2. 2.

    & Tracking earth’s energy. Science 328, 316–317 (2010).

  3. 3.

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

  4. 4.

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

  5. 5.

    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).

  6. 6.

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

  7. 7.

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

  8. 8.

    & Tracking Earth’s energy: From El Niño to global warming. Surv. Geophys. (2011).

  9. 9.

    & Tracing the upper ocean’s “missing heat”. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L14610 (2011).

  10. 10.

    , , , & Model-based evidence of deep-ocean heat uptake during surface-temperature hiatus periods. Nature Climate Change 1229, 360–364 (2011).

  11. 11.

    , , & Earth’s energy imbalance and implications. Atmos. Chem. Phys. 11, 13421–13449 (2011).

  12. 12.

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

  13. 13.

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

  14. 14.

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

  15. 15.

    , & Global hydrographic variability patterns during 2003–2008. J. Geophys. Res. 114, C09007 (2009).

  16. 16.

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

  17. 17.

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

  18. 18.

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

  19. 19.

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

  20. 20.

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

  21. 21.

    Estimating Global Energy Flow from the Global Upper Ocean. Surv. Geophys. (2011).

  22. 22.

    & 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).

  23. 23.

    , & Importance of the deep ocean for estimating decadal changes in Earth’s radiation balance. Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L13707 (2011).

  24. 24.

    , , & et al. The ERA-Interim reanalysis: Configuration and performance of the data assimilation system. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 137, 553–597 (2011).

  25. 25.

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

  26. 26.

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

  27. 27.

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

  28. 28.

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

  29. 29.

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

  30. 30.

    , , & Isolating the signal of ocean global warming. Geophys. Res. Lett. 34, L23610 (2007).

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


  1. NASA Langley Research Center, 21 Langley Boulevard, Hampton, Virginia 23681, USA

    • Norman G. Loeb
    • , David R. Doelling
    •  & Takmeng Wong
  2. Joint Institute for Marine and Atmospheric Research, University of Hawaii at Manoa, Honolulu, Hawaii 96822, USA

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

    • John M. Lyman
    •  & Gregory C. Johnson
  4. Department of Meteorology, University of Reading, Earley Gate, PO Box 243, Reading, RG6 6BB, UK

    • Richard P. Allan
  5. Division of Meteorology and Physical Oceanography, Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, 4600 Rickenbacker Causeway, Miami, Florida 33149, USA

    • Brian J. Soden
  6. Jet Propulsion Laboratory, 4800 Oak Grove Drive, Pasadena, California 91109, USA

    • Graeme L. Stephens


  1. Search for Norman G. Loeb in:

  2. Search for John M. Lyman in:

  3. Search for Gregory C. Johnson in:

  4. Search for Richard P. Allan in:

  5. Search for David R. Doelling in:

  6. Search for Takmeng Wong in:

  7. Search for Brian J. Soden in:

  8. Search for Graeme L. Stephens in:


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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Norman G. Loeb.

Supplementary information

PDF files

  1. 1.

    Supplementary Information

    Supplementary Information

About this article

Publication history