Science Debunks 'Hiatus' in Ocean Warming: Sea Surface Heating Twice as Fast as Thought

The oceans have been warming steadily over 45 years, NASA confirms using satellite imagery, refuting claims that the heating had halted for 15 years. Not so.

Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster
Credit: Vivian Eden
Ruth Schuster
Ruth Schuster

Climate change deniers took a body blow this week as a team of scientists confirmed that ocean surface temperatures have been steadily rising for the last 45 years. The team also proved that a claimed hiatus in the temperature rise over the last 15 years was a figment of changes in measurement technique.

Moreover, scientists from NASA separately confirmed the finding using satellite data: the seeming halt in the increase of temperature was a figment of measurement techniques.

There can be colder years and hotter years – that is called fluctuation; in some areas, the ocean surface is heating faster than elsewhere; but the general planetwide trend is starkly clear.

This isn’t a question of whether the water will be nicer for a dip. Rising oceanic surface temperature has been linked with superstorms and extreme weather, finding which are supported by paleoclimate studies. The changing water temperatures are also already leading to massive species relocation and other ecological upheavals. And finally, warmer water has greater volume than cooler water, which portends rising water levels in our future.

A paper debunking the claim, popular among climate deniers, that ocean warming had slowed or even stopped over the last 15 years was published in 2015. Now a multidisciplinary team from the University of California and Berkeley Earth, a non-profit research institute focused on climate change, have used independent data to confirm that warming is an ongoing process .

The mistaken impression that ocean warming had halted was caused by a change in the way ocean surface temperature is measured. In the past, it was measured by ships; today it’s measured by buoys.

Ship measurements are skewed upward, because the ships test the temperature of seawater piped through their engine rooms – which means it had warmed up a bit. Buoys measure the actual temperature of the seawater in situ.

So, as buoy measurements replaced ship measurements, some of the ocean warming was hidden.

NASA on board

After correcting for this “cold bias” and adding independent data from satellites, not only did the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researchers conclude that warming has continued. They also concluded that it is proceeding at double the pace thought until now.

The oceans have actually warmed by 0.12 degrees Celsius (0.22 degrees Fahrenheit) per decade since the year 2000, the scientists report in the journal Science Advances. That is nearly twice as fast as earlier estimates of 0.07 degrees Celsius per decade.

The new study, which uses independent data from satellites and robotic floats as well as buoys, concludes that the NOAA results were correct.

NASA agrees. “Satellites and automated floats are completely independent witnesses of recent ocean warming, and their testimony matches the NOAA results. It looks like the NOAA researchers were right all along,” said co-author Mark Richardson of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory and the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena.

“Our results mean that essentially the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration got it right, that they were not cooking the books,” stated lead author Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student in UC Berkeley’s Energy and Resources Group.

What about the Mediterranean Sea, which is practically enclosed, and on which Israel sits? It’s been heating even faster, a different group reported several years ago, adding that the effects of warming on the “miniature ocean” are exacerbated because climate change interacts synergistically with numerous other disturbances, such as accelerated habitat destruction.

So the seeming ocean warming hiatus that had foxed climate change scientists in recent years never was. It was a measuring mistake and now climate change deniers should stop pointing to it.

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