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

TS.3.3.1 Changes in Ocean Heat Content and Circulation

The world ocean has warmed since 1955, accounting over this period for more than 80% of the changes in the energy content of the Earth’s climate system. A total of 7.9 million vertical profiles of ocean temperature allows construction of improved global time series (see Figure TS.16). Analyses of the global oceanic heat budget have been replicated by several independent analysts and are robust to the method used. Data coverage limitations require averaging over decades for the deep ocean and observed decadal variability in the global heat content is not fully understood. However, inadequacies in the distribution of data (particularly coverage in the Southern Ocean and South Pacific) could contribute to the apparent decadal variations in heat content. During the period 1961 to 2003, the 0 to 3000 m ocean layer has taken up about 14.1 × 1022 J, equivalent to an average heating rate of 0.2 W m–2 (per unit area of the Earth’s surface). During 1993 to 2003, the corresponding rate of warming in the shallower 0 to 700 m ocean layer was higher, about 0.5 ± 0.18 W m–2. Relative to 1961 to 2003, the period 1993 to 2003 had high rates of warming but in 2004 and 2005 there has been some cooling compared to 2003. {5.15.3}

Global Ocean Heat Content (0 - 700 m)

Figure TS.16

Figure TS.16. Time series of global ocean heat content (1022 J) for the 0 to 700 m layer. The three coloured lines are independent analyses of the oceanographic data. The black and red curves denote the deviation from their 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. The 90% uncertainty range for the black curve is indicated by the grey shading and for the other two curves by the error bars. {Figure 5.1}

Warming is widespread over the upper 700 m of the global ocean. The Atlantic has warmed south of 45°N. The warming is penetrating deeper in the Atlantic Ocean Basin than in the Pacific, Indian and Southern Oceans, due to the deep overturning circulation cell that occurs in the North Atlantic. The SH deep overturning circulation shows little evidence of change based on available data. However, the upper layers of the Southern Ocean contribute strongly to the overall warming. At least two seas at subtropical latitudes (Mediterranean and Japan/East China Sea) are warming. While the global trend is one of warming, significant decadal variations have been observed in the global time series, and there are large regions where the oceans are cooling. Parts of the North Atlantic, North Pacific and equatorial Pacific have cooled over the last 50 years. The changes in the Pacific Ocean show ENSO-like spatial patterns linked in part to the PDO. {5.2, 5.3}

Parts of the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation exhibit considerable decadal variability, but data do not support a coherent trend in the overturning circulation. {5.3}