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

TS.3.3 Changes in the Ocean: Instrumental Record

The ocean plays an important role in climate and climate change. The ocean is influenced by mass, energy and momentum exchanges with the atmosphere. Its heat capacity is about 1000 times larger than that of the atmosphere and the ocean’s net heat uptake is therefore many times greater than that of the atmosphere (see Figure TS.15). Global observations of the heat taken up by the ocean can now be shown to be a definitive test of changes in the global energy budget. Changes in the amount of energy taken up by the upper layers of the ocean also play a crucial role for climate variations on seasonal to interannual time scales, such as El Niño. Changes in the transport of heat and SSTs have important effects upon many regional climates worldwide. Life in the sea is dependent on the biogeochemical status of the ocean and is affected by changes in its physical state and circulation. Changes in ocean biogeochemistry can also feed back into the climate system, for example, through changes in uptake or release of radiatively active gases such as CO2. {5.1, 7.3}

Energy Content in the Climate System

Figure TS.15

Figure TS.15. Energy content changes in different components of the Earth system for two periods (1961–2003 and 1993–2003). Blue bars are for 1961 to 2003; burgundy bars are for 1993 to 2003. Positive energy content change means an increase in stored energy (i.e., heat content in oceans, latent heat from reduced ice or sea ice volumes, heat content in the continents excluding latent heat from permafrost changes, and latent and sensible heat and potential and kinetic energy in the atmosphere). All error estimates are 90% confidence intervals. No estimate of confidence is available for the continental heat gain. Some of the results have been scaled from published results for the two respective periods. {Figure 5.4}

Global mean sea level variations are driven in part by changes in density, through thermal expansion or contraction of the ocean’s volume. Local changes in sea level also have a density-related component due to temperature and salinity changes. In addition, exchange of water between oceans and other reservoirs (e.g., ice sheets, mountain glaciers, land water reservoirs and the atmosphere) can change the ocean’s mass and hence contribute to changes in sea level. Sea level change is not geographically uniform because processes such as ocean circulation changes are not uniform across the globe (see Box TS.4). {5.5}

Oceanic variables can be useful for climate change detection, in particular temperature and salinity changes below the surface mixed layer where the variability is smaller and signal-to-noise ratio is higher. Observations analysed since the TAR have provided new evidence for changes in global ocean heat content and salinity, sea level, thermal expansion contributions to sea level rise, water mass evolution and biogeochemical cycles. {5.5}