IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis

5.2.2 Ocean Heat Content Long-Term Temperature Changes

Figure 5.1 shows two time series of ocean heat content for the 0 to 700 m layer of the World Ocean, updated from Ishi et al. (2006) and Levitus et al. (2005a) for 1955 to 2005, and a time series for 0 to 750 m for 1993 to 2005 updated from Willis et al. (2004). Approximately 7.9 million temperature profiles were used in constructing the two longer time series. The three heat content analyses cover different periods but where they overlap in time there is good agreement. The time series shows an overall trend of increasing heat content in the World Ocean with interannual and inter-decadal variations superimposed on this trend. The root mean square difference between the three data sets is 1.5 × 1022 J. These year-to-year differences, which are due to differences in quality control and data used, are small and now approaching the accuracies required to close the Earth’s radiation budget (e.g., Carton et al., 2005). On longer time scales, the two longest time series (using independent criteria for selection, quality control, interpolation and analysis of similar data sets) show good agreement about long-term trends and also on decadal time scales.

Figure 5.1

Figure 5.1. Time series of global annual ocean heat content (1022 J) for the 0 to 700 m layer. The black curve is updated from Levitus et al. (2005a), with the shading representing the 90% confidence interval. The red and green curves are updates of the analyses by Ishii et al. (2006) and Willis et al. (2004, over 0 to 750 m) respectively, with the error bars denoting the 90% confidence interval. The black and red curves denote the deviation from the 1961 to 1990 average and the shorter green curve denotes the deviation from the average of the black curve for the period 1993 to 2003.

For the period 1993 to 2003, the Levitus et al. (2005a) analysis has a linear global ocean trend of 0.42 ± 0.18 W m–2, Willis et al. (2004) has a trend of 0.66 ± 0.18 W m–2 and Ishii et al. (2006) a trend of 0.33 ± 0.18 W m–2. Overall, we assess the trend for this period as 0.5 ± 0.18 W m–2. For the 0 to 700 m layer and the period 1955 to 2003 the heat content change is 10.9 ± 3.1 × 1022 J or 0.14 ± 0.04 W m–2 (data from Levitus et al., 2005a). All of these estimates are per unit area of Earth surface. Despite the fact that there are differences between these three ocean heat content estimates due to the data used, quality control applied, instrumental biases, temporal and spatial averaging and analysis methods (Appendix 5.A.1), they are consistent with each other giving a high degree of confidence for their use in climate change studies. The global increase in ocean heat content during the period 1993 to 2003 in two ocean models constrained by assimilating altimetric sea level and other observations (Carton et al., 2005; Köhl et al., 2006) is considerably larger than these observational estimates. We assess the heat content change from both of the long time series (0 to 700 m layer and the 1961 to 2003 period) to be 8.11 ± 0.74 × 1022 J, corresponding to an average warming of 0.1°C or 0.14 ± 0.04 W m–2, and conclude that the available heat content estimates from 1961 to 2003 show a significant increasing trend in ocean heat content.

The data used in estimating the Levitus et al. (2005a) ocean temperature fields (for the above heat content estimates) do not include sea surface temperature (SST) observations, which are discussed in Chapter 3. However, comparison of the global, annual mean time series of near-surface temperature (approximately 0 to 5 m depth) from this analysis and the corresponding SST series based on a subset of the International Comprehensive Ocean-Atmosphere Data Set (ICOADS) database (approximately 134 million SST observations; Smith and Reynolds, 2003 and additional data) shows a high correlation (r = 0.96) for the period 1955 to 2005. The consistency between these two data sets gives confidence in the ocean temperature data set used for estimating depth-integrated heat content, and supports the trends in SST reported in Chapter 3.

There is a contribution to the global heat content integral from depths greater than 700 m as documented by Levitus et al. (2000; 2005a). However, due to the lack of data with increasing depth the data must be composited using five-year running pentads in order to have enough data for a meaningful analysis in the deep ocean. Even then, there are not enough deep ocean data to extend the time series for the upper 3,000 m past the 1994–1998 pentad. There is a close correlation between the 0 to 700 and 0 to 3,000 m time series of Levitus et al. (2005a). A comparison of the linear trends from these two series indicates that about 69% of the increase in ocean heat content during 1955 to 1998 (the period when estimates from both time series are available) occurred in the upper 700 m of the World Ocean. Based on the linear trend, for the 0 to 3,000 m layer for the period 1961 to 2003 there has been an increase of ocean heat content of approximately 14.2 ± 2.4 × 1022 J, corresponding to a global ocean volume mean temperature increase of 0.037°C during this period. This increase in ocean heat content corresponds to an average heating rate of 0.21 ± 0.04 W m–2 for the Earth’s surface.

The geographical distribution of the linear trend of 0 to 700 m heat content for 1955 to 2003 for the World Ocean is shown in Figure 5.2. These trends are non-uniform in space, with some regions showing cooling and others warming. Most of the Atlantic Ocean exhibits warming with a major exception being the subarctic gyre. The Atlantic Ocean accounts for approximately half of the global linear trend of ocean heat content (Levitus et al., 2005a). Much of the Indian Ocean has warmed since 1955 with a major exception being the 5°S to 20°S latitude belt. The Southern Ocean (south of 35°S) in the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific sectors has generally warmed. The Pacific Ocean is characterised by warming with major exceptions along 40°N and the western tropical Pacific.

Figure 5.2

Figure 5.2. Linear trends (1955–2003) of change in ocean heat content per unit surface area (W m–2) for the 0 to 700 m layer, based on the work of Levitus et al. (2005a). The linear trend is computed at each grid point using a least squares fit to the time series at each grid point. The contour interval is 0.25 W m–2. Red shading indicates values equal to or greater than 0.25 W m–2 and blue shading indicates values equal to or less than –0.25 W m–2.

Figure 5.3 shows the linear trends (1955 to 2003) of zonally averaged temperature anomalies (0 to 1,500 m) for the World Ocean and individual basins based on yearly anomaly fields (Levitus et al., 2005a). The strongest trends in these anomalies are concentrated in the upper ocean. Warming occurs at most latitudes in all three of the ocean basins. The regions that exhibit cooling are mainly in the shallow equatorial areas and in some high-latitude regions. In the Indian Ocean, cooling occurs at subsurface depths centred on 12°S at 150 m depth and in the Pacific centred on the equator and 150 m depth. Cooling also occured in the 32°N to 48°N region of the Pacific Ocean and the 49°N to 60°N region of the Atlantic Ocean. Regional temperature changes are discussed further in Section 5.3.

Figure 5.3

Figure 5.3. Linear trend (1955–2003) of zonally averaged temperature in the upper 1,500 m of the water column of the Atlantic, Pacific, Indian and World Oceans. The contour interval is 0.05°C per decade, and the dark solid line is the zero contour. Red shading indicates values equal to or greater than 0.025°C per decade and blue shading indicates values equal to or less than –0.025°C per decade. Based on the work of Levitus et al. (2005a).