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.

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.

This is a preview of subscription content, access via your institution

Relevant articles

Open Access articles citing this article.

Access options

Rent or buy this article

Get just this article for as long as you need it


Prices may be subject to local taxes which are calculated during checkout

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.


  1. Loeb, N. G. et al. Observed changes in top-of-the-atmosphere radiation and upper-ocean heating consistent within uncertainty. Nature Geosci. 5, 110–113 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. Allan, R. P. et al. Changes in global net radiative imbalance 1985–2012. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 5588–5597 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  3. Meehl, G. A., Arblaster, J. M., Fasullo, J. Y., Hu, A. & Trenberth, K. E. Model-based evidence of deep ocean heat uptake during surface temperature hiatus periods. Nature Clim. Change 1, 360–364 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. Kosaka, Y. & Xie, S-P. Recent global-warming hiatus tied to equatorial Pacific surface cooling. Nature 501, 403–407 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. Trenberth, K. E. & Fasullo, J. T. An apparent hiatus in global warming? Earth’s Future 1, 19–32 (2013).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  6. England, M. H. et al. Recent intensification of wind-driven circulation in the Pacific and the ongoing warming hiatus. Nature Clim. Change 4, 222–227 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  7. Maher, N., Sen Gupta, A. & England, M. H. Drivers of decadal hiatus periods in the 20th and 21st centuries. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 5978–5986 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  8. Drijfhout, S. S. et al. Surface warming hiatus caused by increased heat uptake across multiple ocean basins. Geophys. Res. Lett. 41, 7868–7874 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  9. 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 

  10. Csanady, G. T. Warm water mass formation. J. Phys. Oceanogr. 14, 264–275 (1984).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  11. Trenberth, K. E., Fasullo, J. T., Branstator, G. & Phillips, A. S. Seasonal aspects of the recent pause in surface warming. Nature Clim. Change 4, 911–916 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  12. Chen, X. & Tung, K-K. Varying planetary heat sink led to global-warming slowdown and acceleration. Science 345, 897–903 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  13. Trenberth, K. E., Fasullo, J. T. & Balmaseda, M. A. Earth’s energy imbalance. J. Clim. 27, 3129–3144 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  14. Compo, G. P. et al. The twentieth century reanalysis project. Q. J. R. Meteorol. Soc. 137, 1–28 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. Gordon, A. L. et al. Makassar Strait throughflow, 2004 to 2006. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L24605 (2008).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  16. Gordon, A. L. et al. The Indonesian throughflow during 2004–2006 as observed by the INSTANT program. Dyn. Atmos. Oceans 50, 115–128 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  17. Susanto, R. D., Ffield, A., Gordon, A. L. & Adi, T. R. Variability of Indonesian throughflow within Makassar Strait, 2004–2009. J. Geophys. Res. 117, C09013 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  18. Meyers, G. Variation of Indonesian throughflow and the El Niño–Southern Oscillation. J. Geophys. Res. 101, 12255–12263 (1996).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  19. England, M. H. & Huang, F. On the interannual variability of the Indonesian throughflow and its linkage with ENSO. J. Clim. 18, 1435–1444 (2005).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. Lee, T. & McPhaden, M. J. Decadal phase change in large-scale sea level and winds in the Indo-Pacific region at the end of the 20th century. Geophys. Res. Lett. 35, L01605 (2008).

    Google Scholar 

  21. Han, W. et al. Patterns of Indian Ocean sea-level change in a warming climate. Nature Geosci. 3, 546–550 (2010).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  22. Han, W. et al. Intensification of decadal and multi-decadal sea level variability in the western tropical Pacific during recent decades. Clim. Dynam. 43, 1357–1379 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  23. Sprintall, J. & Révelard, A. The Indonesian throughflow response to Indo-Pacific climate variability. J. Geophys. Res. 119, 1161–1175 (2014).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  24. Gordon, A. L. Interocean exchange of thermocline water. J. Geophys. Res. 91, 5037–5046 (1986).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  25. Broecker, W. S. The biggest chill. Nature Hist. 96, 74–82 (1987).

    Google Scholar 

  26. Lee, S-K. et al. What caused the significant increase in Atlantic Ocean heat content since the mid-20th century? Geophys. Res. Lett. 38, L17607 (2011).

    Google Scholar 

  27. Danabasoglu, G. et al. The CCSM4 ocean component. J. Clim. 25, 1361–1389 (2012).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  28. Gent, P. R. & Danabasoglu, G. Response to increasing Southern Hemisphere winds in CCSM4. J. Clim. 24, 4992–4998 (2011).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  29. Steele, M., Morley, R. & Ermold, W. PHC: A global ocean hydrography with a high-quality Arctic Ocean. J. Clim. 14, 2079–2087 (2001).

    Article  Google Scholar 

  30. Large, W. G. & Yeager, S. G. The global climatology of an interannually varying air–sea flux data set. Clim. Dynam. 33, 341–364 (2009).

    Article  Google Scholar 

Download references


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.

Author information

Authors and Affiliations



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.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to Sang-Ki Lee.

Ethics declarations

Competing interests

The authors declare no competing financial interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Information (PDF 895 kb)

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

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).

Download citation

  • Received:

  • Accepted:

  • Published:

  • Issue Date:

  • DOI:

This article is cited by


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