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Ocean Warming: Inadequate Data, Unknown Errors

January 16, 2019
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By Paul Homewood



A common sense piece from David Whitehouse:



The warming of the oceans is one of the key topics in climate change. The Earth’s climate system is responding to an energy imbalance. Any positive imbalance in the world’s energy budget is bound to show up in the oceans as a rise in temperature because the source of the excess energy – heat-trapping greenhouse gases in the atmosphere – overlies much more ocean than land.

Reading some recent papers on ocean warming you might be forgiven for thinking they are behaving as predicted by some, warming more than expected, possibly with the warming accelerating. It has been said that we understand the oceans. For me this is premature. As we look ever closer at the oceans we are seeing more of what we don’t understand.

One such paper is replete with encouraging words to support their stance in the face of difficulties expressed elsewhere but unmentioned in the paper. The data “resemble models,” and “models reliably predict,” even, it is becoming “increasingly clear.”

That the oceans are warming is a conclusion of over a century of observations made in a variety of ways and connecting together these disparate datasets is difficult. Temperature measurements have been made from a variety of probes whose characteristics changed over time, or by different types of water inlets in ships, or by buckets and thermometers. They all give different results and have all been analysed and reanalysed and adjusted again and again and will certainly continue to do so in the future. Once their was a bump in ocean temperature during the 1940s, then it went away as it was an instrumental effect.

The only way around this problem is to consider a more coherent dataset – the Argo array of 6,000 or so buoys that started being distributed in 2006. The problem with that empirical data is that it is not yet really long enough, and what we have doesn’t agree with the data obtained by other means. The inhomogeneity of the data before the Argo array is a major problem, and the jump seen in Ocean Heat Content (OHC) with the introduction of the Argo array is another.

Measuring Ocean Heat Content is a subject struggling with inadequate data. It involves measuring the temperature of vast oceans (indeed reducing them to one temperature) to an accuracy at the limits of our ability to detect, in some cases a thousandth of a degree. Measurements that are made with no real understanding of the errors be they random or systematic.

Another, unnecessary, problem is that researchers use different units and there is a case for journals imposing common standards among the papers they publish to save researchers having to convert between W m-1 (expressed either for the entire Earth’s surface of for the ocean only), temperature or energy increase (often expressed in ZetaJoules). Also, as is often the case in climate studies, proper error bars are often not used.

Much of the heat, some claim, is stored deep in the ocean depths — but how did it get there? Timescales for ocean circulation are long, meaning that their depth have not yet seen what is happening at the surface. We do not understand centennial and millennial ocean circulation. We are seeing more references to cooling in the ocean depths. Some of our deep oceans appear to be still adjusting to the end of the Little Ice Age. Another significant finding is that the oceans appear to have absorbed as much heat in the early 20th century as in recent decades.

Some simplify and then exaggerate OHC data, a very foolish thing to do considering that as far as the oceans are concerned there is uncertainty at every point of the compass.


I would add a thought.

The Earth’s climate systems are all about finding equilibrium. Warm up the ocean, and you will end up with a warmer atmosphere as well.

We therefore need to understand the cause of ocean warming, and identify how much this has affected atmospheric temperatures.

As David rightly says, changes in ocean circulation occur over very long periods of time. How much of the recent warming then is due to a recovery from the Little Ice Age?

  1. Broadlands permalink
    January 16, 2019 7:45 pm

    “….changes in ocean circulation occur over very long periods of time.”

    For parts of the southern oceans this is not true. CFCs, man-made since the 1930s, have been encountered at abyssal depths since 1987 in the Weddell Sea. J.L. Bullister, 1989.

    “Cold, dense waters are formed along the southern margin of the Weddell Sea on the continental shelf and slope. These waters sink to abyssal depths and are transported northward through the Weddell Sea as bottom currents. The currents carry dissolved CFCs from near-surface layers to the deep Weddell Sea.”

  2. Joe Public permalink
    January 16, 2019 8:00 pm

    Ocean Heat Content increase – Joules mean nothing to 99.9% of the public. And expressing these tiny units with an impressively large number that again, few of the public can relate to (ZetaJoules), aides the scare factor)

    The irony is, the change in OHC number of Joules is *calculated* from measuring its temperature changes.

    The late Prof Sir David MacKay nailed it here:

    “The recent post at realclimate about measured increases in ocean heat content has an interesting graph whose y-axis is labelled in spectacular units, 10^22 J. Even exajoules are not that big! (1EJ = 10^18 J)…

    The graph shows the ocean heat content increasing by about 20 x 1022 J in 40 years.

    The change in heat content as a average rise in temperature of the top 700 metres of the ocean (which is what was actually measured to make these graphs!).

    Temperature rise = (Heat content increase) / (Volume of water) / (Heat capacity)
    = 20 x 1022 J / (350 x 106 km2 * 700 m) / (4.2 x 106 J/K/m3)
    = 0.19 K (or 0.19 degrees C). [Over 40 years, remember]

    For a really scary number, the heat required for that 40-year temperature increase is obtained from using just 7 cubic miles of oil.

  3. MrGrimNasty permalink
    January 16, 2019 8:22 pm

    At least they’re not using the usual juvenile “equivalent to ‘n’ hiroshima bombs”.

  4. Jack Broughton permalink
    January 16, 2019 8:27 pm

    I’ve often pondered about why the temperature rose in the 1930s then fell again, as based on solar input it makes no sense: i.e. what is driving the ~60 year cycle? However, if the oceans stored energy alters cyclically, this could explain this change. It is clear that the three phases of water control the climate; the claimed effect of CO2 is only credible as a form of Chaos theory that requires no damping by the powerful forcing functions.

    The slow recovery of the Earth’s temperature from the LIA at about 1 deg K/ century, seems to be ocean controlled.

    It still amazes me that so many educated people can believe in climate models when the behaviour of oceans, clouds and ice are barely understood, (not to mention volcanoes).

  5. Immune to propaganda permalink
    January 16, 2019 8:27 pm

    The truth is they know Jack S**t but knowing nothing is still enough to enforce taxation on the peasants by the eco socialist movement at the UN and EU.

  6. Terbrugghen permalink
    January 16, 2019 9:16 pm

    Here’s something I’ve never seen addressed and it has always had me wondering. In addition to the CO2 that fossil fuels are contributing to the earth’s atmosphere, how much heat has been liberated at the surface of the earth through fossil fuel burning. I looked at a town of 100,000 in the American midwest from the 8th story of a hospital last year when it was a negative 30 degrees C. (20 below zero F). Every single place was pumping out heat like crazy, a heat fog lingered over the city. Repeat daily for months across a wide swath of North America. Where does that added heat go? is it just statistically insignificant?

    • ben Dussan permalink
      January 17, 2019 2:59 am

      As I understand, the total amount of energy used by humans amounts to about less than 0.5% of the solar energy input into the earths biosphere…..

  7. January 16, 2019 9:26 pm

    The ‘one such paper’ is the Cheng et al one, skewered by Roy Spencer.

  8. ben Dussan permalink
    January 17, 2019 3:04 am

    It appears top be quite clear that there is insufficient knowledge and understanding about the science related to solar warming / climate change, and there is also insufficient data of the energy balance of the biosphere…..

  9. 4 Eyes permalink
    January 17, 2019 6:29 am

    I would have thought the best way to estimate the change in OHC is to measure the change in volume as a result of thermal expansion i.e. measure sea level rise and then make an estimate of fresh water plus and minus. However one does it, the info that is ultimately required is the sea level rise because that is what the scare is all about and we can measure sea level rise directly and so far it is not scary not is the derivative of SLR with time. And can someone please explain the mechanism by which a barely warming atmosphere heats the ocean with a specific heat capacity almost 2 orders of magnitude greater than the atmosphere.

  10. January 17, 2019 7:02 am

    Reblogged this on Climate Collections.

  11. January 17, 2019 9:54 am

    The NOAA ocean heat content data

  12. James Thomas permalink
    January 17, 2019 7:23 pm


    Here is an interesting link that shows how unsure the science is about cattle and methane is:

    Do you have any contacts or papers that could illuminate further as the propaganda we are fed is causing me to generate heat!

    Thanks for your efforts with this site


    James Thomas

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