IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group I: The Physical Science Basis Variability of Heat Content

A major feature of Figure 5.1 is the relatively large increase in global ocean heat content during 1969 to 1980 and a sharp decrease during 1980 to 1983. The 0 to 700 m layer cooled at a rate of 1.2 W m–2 during this period. Most of this cooling occurred in the Pacific Ocean and may have been associated with the reversal in polarity of the PDO (Stephens et al., 2001; Levitus et al., 2005c, see also Section 3.6.3). Examination of the geographical distribution of the differences in 0 to 700 m heat content between the 1977–1981 and 1965–1969 pentads and the 1986–1990 and 1977–1981 pentads shows that the pattern of heat content change has spatial scales of entire ocean basins and is also found in similar analyses by Ishii et al. (2006). The Pacific Ocean dominates the decadal variations of global heat content during these two periods. The origin of this variability is not well understood.

Based on model experiments, it has been suggested that errors resulting from the highly inhomogeneous distribution of ocean observations in space and time (see Appendix 5.A.1) could lead to spurious variability in the analysis (e.g., Gregory et al., 2004, AchutaRao et al., 2006). As discussed in the appendix, even in periods with overall good coverage in the observing system, large regions in Southern Hemisphere (SH) are not well sampled, and their contribution to global heat content variability is less certain. However, the large-scale nature of heat content variability, the similarity of the Levitus et al. (2005a) and the Ishii et al. (2006) analyses and new results showing a decrease in the global heat content in a period with much better data coverage (Lyman et al., 2006), gives confidence that there is substantial inter-decadal variability in global ocean heat content.