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Pacific origin of the abrupt increase in Indian Ocean heat content during the warming hiatus


Global mean surface warming has stalled since the end of the twentieth century1,2, but the net radiation imbalance at the top of the atmosphere continues to suggest an increasingly warming planet. This apparent contradiction has been reconciled by an anomalous heat flux into the ocean3,4,5,6,7,8, induced by a shift towards a La Niña-like state with cold sea surface temperatures in the eastern tropical Pacific over the past decade or so. A significant portion of the heat missing from the atmosphere is therefore expected to be stored in the Pacific Ocean. However, in situ hydrographic records indicate that Pacific Ocean heat content has been decreasing9. Here, we analyse observations along with simulations from a global ocean–sea ice model to track the pathway of heat. We find that the enhanced heat uptake by the Pacific Ocean has been compensated by an increased heat transport from the Pacific Ocean to the Indian Ocean, carried by the Indonesian throughflow. As a result, Indian Ocean heat content has increased abruptly, which accounts for more than 70% of the global ocean heat gain in the upper 700 m during the past decade. We conclude that the Indian Ocean has become increasingly important in modulating global climate variability.

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Figure 1: OHC700 and heat budget for the global ocean, and the Indian and Pacific oceans.
Figure 2: ITF heat and volume transports and transport-weighted temperature in the upper 700 m.
Figure 3: Sea surface height, heat transport and zonal wind stress.
Figure 4: OHC700 and heat budget for three sensitivity experiments.


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This work was supported by the base funding of the NOAA AOML, and by the NOAA Climate Program Office. S-K.L. acknowledges constructive comments from G. Foltz and the editorial assistance of G. Derr, L. Johns and S. Jones. W.P. acknowledges support from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research Kiel. A.L.G. and B.H. acknowledge funding for the Makassar Strait throughflow time series provided under CICAR award number NA08OAR4320754 from NOAA. Lamont-Doherty Earth Observatory contribution number 7888.

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S-K.L. conceived the study and wrote the initial draft of the paper. S-K.L. designed and performed the experiments. S-K.L., W.P., M.O.B. and A.L.G. contributed significantly to the discussion and interpretation of results and writing of the paper. A.L.G. and B.H. analysed the Makassar Strait mooring data. Y.L. assisted in the analysis.

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Correspondence to Sang-Ki Lee.

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Lee, SK., Park, W., Baringer, M. et al. Pacific origin of the abrupt increase in Indian Ocean heat content during the warming hiatus. Nature Geosci 8, 445–449 (2015).

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