Study reconstructing ocean warming finds ocean circulation changes may account for significant portion of sea level rise

Study suggests that in the last 60 years up to half the observed warming and associated sea level rise in low- and mid- latitudes of the Atlantic Ocean is due to changes in ocean circulation.

Over the past century, increased greenhouse gas emissions have given rise to an excess of energy in the Earth system. More than 90% of this excess energy has been absorbed by the ocean, leading to increased ocean temperatures and associated sea level rise, while moderating surface warming.

The multi-disciplinary team of scientists have published estimates in PNAS, that global warming of the oceans of 436 x 1021 Joules has occurred from 1871 to present (roughly 1000 times annual worldwide human primary energy consumption) and that comparable warming happened over the periods 1920-1945 and 1990-2015.

The estimates support evidence that the oceans are absorbing most of the excess energy in the climate system arising from greenhouse gases emitted by human activities.

Prof Laure Zanna (Physics), who led the international team of researchers said: ‘Our reconstruction is in line with other direct estimates and provides evidence for ocean warming before the 1950s.’

The researchers’ technique to reconstruct ocean warming is based on a mathematical approach originally developed by Prof Samar Khatiwala (Earth Sciences) to reconstruct manmade CO2 uptake by the ocean.

Prof Khatiwala said: ‘Our approach is akin to “painting” different bits of the ocean surface with dyes of different colors and monitoring how they spread into the interior over time. We can then apply that information to anything else – for example manmade carbon or heat anomalies – that is transported by ocean circulation. If we know what the sea surface temperature anomaly was in 1870 in the North Atlantic Ocean we can figure out how much it contributes to the warming in, say, the deep Indian Ocean in 2018. The idea goes back nearly 200 years to the English mathematician George Green.’

The new estimate suggests that in the last 60 years up to half the observed warming and associated sea level rise in low- and mid- latitudes of the Atlantic Ocean is due to changes in ocean circulation. During this period, more heat has accumulated at lower latitudes than would have if circulation were not changing.

While a change in ocean circulation is identified, the researchers cannot attribute it solely to human-induced changes.

Much work remains to be done to validate the method and provide a better uncertainty estimate, particularly in the earlier part of the reconstruction. However the consistency of the new estimate with direct temperature measurements gives the team confidence in their approach.

Prof Zanna said: ‘Strictly speaking, the technique is only applicable to tracers like manmade carbon that are passively transported by ocean circulation. However, heat does not behave in this manner as it affects circulation by changing the density of seawater. We were pleasantly surprised how well the approach works. It opens up an exciting new way to study ocean warming in addition to using direct measurements.’

This work offers an answer to an important gap in knowledge of ocean warming, but is only a first step. It is important to understand the cause of the ocean circulation changes to help predict future patterns of warming and sea level rise.


Via Eurekalert

Full paper title: Zanna, L., Khatiwala, S., Gregory, J., Ison, J. and Heimbach, P. (2019) Global reconstruction of historical ocean heat storage and transport. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America (PNAS); doi/10.1073/pnas.1808838115

(open access)


Most of the excess energy stored in the climate system due to anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions has been taken up by the oceans, leading to thermal expansion and sea level rise. The oceans thus have an important role in the Earth’s energy imbalance. Observational constraints on future anthropogenic warming critically depend on accurate estimates of past ocean heat content (OHC) change. We present a novel reconstruction of OHC since 1871, with global coverage of the full ocean depth. Our estimates combine timeseries of observed sea surface temperatures, with much longer historical coverage than those in the ocean interior, together with a representation (a Green’s function) of time-independent ocean transport processes. For 1955-2017, our estimates are comparable to direct estimates made by infilling the available 3D time-dependent ocean temperature observations. We find that the global ocean absorbed heat during this period at a rate of 0.30 ± 0.06 W/m2 in the upper 2000 m and 0.028 ± 0.026 W/m2 below 2000 m, with large decadal fluctuations. The total OHC change since 1871 is estimated at 436 ±91 × 1021 J, with an increase during 1921-1946 (145 ± 62× 1021 J) that is as large as during 1990-2015. By comparing with direct estimates, we also infer that, during 1955-2017, up to half of the Atlantic Ocean warming and thermosteric sea level rise at low-to-mid latitudes emerged due to heat convergence from changes in ocean transport.

Figure1 Global and Atlantic OHC timeseries and trends for GF and observational estimates relative to 2006–2015. Timeseries of global (A–C) and Atlantic (D–E) OHC changes in zetajoules (1 ZJ = 1021 J): (A and D) top 700 m, (B and E) top 2,000 m, and (C and F) below 2,000 m. The OHC timeseries include the reconstruction based on GFs (orange) and direct measurements from the NCEI (2) (black), the IAP (1) (green), Ishii et al. (20) (blue), and Domingues et al. (updated from refs. 21 and 22) (brown). The latitudinal range for all products used here is 80° S to 80° N, except for the product from Domingues et al. (21), which uses 65° S to 65° N. The shading represents the uncertainty associated with each estimate (Materials and Methods). Insets above each panel represent the linear trends and associated error (zetajoules per year) over different periods for each best estimate available (see text). For the global ocean (A–C), we include trends from the ECCO-GODAE solution (red) and for the deep ocean (C) the updated estimates from refs. 1, 23, and 24 (cyan).


Figure 2
Cumulative heat uptake from 1871 to 2017 (joules per year) shown for each patch (numbered here and shown in SI Appendix, Fig. S1), contributing to the integrated passive heat storage (A) globally and (B) in the Atlantic Ocean. Note the different scales for the two panels.


OHC and sea-level trends in the Atlantic Ocean as a function of latitude. Atlantic OHC linear trends calculated over 1955–2017 (ZJ per degree latitude per decade) as a function of latitude for GF (orange) and observational estimates (black) and for different depth ranges: (A) top 700 m, (B) top 2,000 m, (C) 700–2,000 m, and (D) below 2,000 m. The average uncertainty (shading) is calculated using the signal to noise ratio from the different datasets, thereby partially including both the departure of the signal from the linear trend over a decade and the uncertainty in the trends from the different observational products. E and F show the difference in sea level (centimeters per degree latitude) estimated using the upper 2,000-m OHC during the periods 1955–1970 and 1971–2016, respectively. The difference is estimated using an average of the first and last 5 y in each period.

via Watts Up With That?

January 7, 2019 at 05:39PM

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