Skip to content

Deep Oceans Are Cooling Amidst A Sea Of Modeling Uncertainty

Jim Steele, Landscapes and Cycles

Deep oceans exhibit a clear cooling trend for the past 2 decades.

Two of the world’s premiere ocean scientists from Harvard and MIT have addressed the data limitations that currently prevent the oceanographic community from resolving the differences among various estimates of changing ocean heat content (in print but available here).

They point out where future data is most needed so these ambiguities do not persist into the next several decades of change. As a by-product of that analysis they 1) determined the deepest oceans are cooling, 2) estimated a much slower rate of ocean warming, 3) highlighted where the greatest uncertainties existed due to the ever changing locations of heating and cooling, and 4) specified concerns with previous methods used to construct changes in ocean heat content, such as Balmaseda and Trenberth’s re-analysis (see below). They concluded, “Direct determination of changes in oceanic heat content over the last 20 years are not in conflict with estimates of the radiative forcing, but the uncertainties remain too large to rationalize e.g., the apparent “pause” in warming.”


Wunsch and Heimbach (2014) humbly admit that their “results differ in detail and in numerical values from other estimates, but the determining whether any are “correct” is probably not possible with the existing data sets.”

They estimate the changing states of the ocean by synthesizing diverse data sets using models developed by the consortium for Estimating the Circulation and Climate of the Ocean, ECCO.   The ECCO “state estimates” have eliminated deficiencies of previous models and they claim, “unlike most “data assimilation” products, [ECCO] satisfies the model equations without anyartificial sources or sinks or forces. The state estimate is from the free running, but adjusted, model and hence satisfies all of the governing model equations, including those for basic conservation of mass, heat, momentum, vorticity, etc. up to numerical accuracy.”

Their results (Figure 18. below) suggest a flattening or slight cooling in the upper 100 meters since 2004, in agreement with the -0.04 Watts/m2 cooling reported by Lyman (2014). The consensus of previous researchers has been that temperatures in the upper 300 meters have flattened or cooled since 2003, while Wunsch and Heimbach (2014) found the upper 700 meters still warmed up to 2009.

The deep layers contain twice as much heat as the upper 100 meters, and overall exhibit a clear cooling trend for the past 2 decades. Unlike the upper layers, which are dominated by the annual cycle of heating and cooling, they argue that deep ocean trends must be viewed as part of the ocean’s long term memory which is still responding to “meteorological forcing of decades to thousands of years ago”. If Balmaseda and Trenberth’s model of deep ocean warming was correct, any increase in ocean heat content must have occurred between 700 and 2000 meters, but the mechanisms that would warm that “middle layer” remains elusive.


The detected cooling of the deepest oceans is quite remarkable given geothermal warming from the ocean floor. Wunsch and Heimbach (2014) note, “As with other extant estimates, the present state estimate does not yet account for the geothermal flux at the sea floor whose mean values (Pollack et al., 1993) are of order 0.1 W/m2,” which is small but “not negligible compared to any vertical heat transfer into the abyss.  (A note of interest is an increase in heat from the ocean floor has recently been associated with increased basal melt of Antarctica’s Thwaites glacier. ) Since heated waters rise, I find it reasonable to assume that, at least in part, any heating of the “middle layers” likely comes from heat that was stored in the deepest ocean decades to thousands of years ago.

Wunsch and Heimbach (2014) emphasize the many uncertainties involved in attributing the cause of changes in the overall heat content concluding, “As with many climate-related records, the unanswerable question here is whether these changes are truly secular, and/or a response to anthropogenic forcing, or whether they are instead fragments of a general red noise behavior seen over durations much too short to depict the long time-scales of Fig. 6, 7, or the result of sampling and measurement biases, or changes in the temporal data density.”

Given those uncertainties, they concluded that much less heat is being added to the oceans compared to claims in previous studies (seen in the table below).  It is interesting to note that compared to Hansen’s study that ended in 2003 before the observed warming pause, subsequent studies also suggest less heat is entering the oceans. Whether those declining trends are a result of improved methodologies, or due to a cooler sun, or both requires more observations. […]

So it remains unclear if and how Trenberth’s “missing heat” has sunk to the deep ocean. The depiction of a dramatic rise in deep ocean heat is highly questionable, even though alarmists have flaunted it as proof of CO2’s power. As Dr. Wunsch had warned earlier, “Convenient assumptions should not be turned prematurely into ‘facts,’ nor uncertainties and ambiguities suppressed.” … “Anyone can write a model: the challenge is to demonstrate its accuracy and precision… Otherwise, the scientific debate is controlled by the most articulate, colorful, or adamant players.”

To reiterate, “the uncertainties remain too large to rationalize e.g., the apparent “pause” in warming.”

Full post