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

  • Nature Geoscience volume 5, pages 110113 (2012)
  • doi:10.1038/ngeo1375
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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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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


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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.

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Norman G. Loeb.

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