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All IPCC definitions taken from Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Working Group I Contribution to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Annex I, Glossary, pp. 941-954. Cambridge University Press.

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Why ocean heat can’t drive climate change, only chase it

What the science says...

Select a level... Basic Intermediate

The oceans are warming and moreover are becoming more acidic, threatening the food chain.

Climate Myth...

It's the ocean

"These small global temperature increases of the last 25 years and over the last century are likely natural changes that the globe has seen many times in the past. This small warming is likely a result of the natural alterations in global ocean currents which are driven by ocean salinity variations. Ocean circulation variations are as yet little understood. Human kind has little or nothing to do with the recent temperature changes. We are not that influential." (William Gray)

The argument attributing the warming of the Earth to heat being released by the oceans was clearly articulated by William M Gray, one of the world’s foremost experts on tropical storms. Unfortunately, his views on oceans and their part in global warming appear to contradict the published science. Gray believes that the increased atmospheric heat – which he calls a ‘small warming’ – is “...likely a result of the natural alterations in global ocean currents which are driven by ocean salinity variations." (BBC Interview 2000)

The Science

The problem with Gray’s argument is that unless more heat was being poured into the oceans, they would be obliged by the laws of physics to cool when heat was transferred to the atmosphere.

80% of the heat in the planet's ecosystem is stored in the oceans, and they have been getting consistently warmer over time (Ocean cooling: skeptic arguments drowned by data). There would also be other indicators e.g. sea levels, which would be static or go down by some small amount as a result of thermal contraction. There are no indicators of ocean heat driving temperature changes that are supported by the evidence. It should also be noted that Gray has never published, nor offered any proof, of these theories, so his views are purely speculative.

Claims that the warming of the planet is due to heat being released from the oceans into the atmosphere are not supported by any empirical evidence or peer-reviewed science.

Last updated on 24 October 2010 by gpwayne. View Archives

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Comments 51 to 53 out of 53:

  1. Just one or two problems.. The oceans are warmer than the atmosphere and therefore cannot be heated in this way. The atmospheric Arctic temperatures are always sub zero which prohibits melting. Secondly, the mechanism described for oceanic heating relies on down welling IR. It must be remembered that the only relevant band here is 15μm, which can only penetrate up to 3mm of the ocean surface. The beer analogy is wrong as the beer is cooler than the surrounding environment. This is not the case with oceans. 

  2. Alexb @51 ,

    why are you suggesting that the 15um wavelength is "the only relevant band"  for oceanic heating?

    Rather, the ocean gains heat variously by that old triad: conduction/ convection/ and radiation.

    Admittedly it is only my own personal anecdotal evidence ~ but I can assure you that every time I have swum beneath the ocean surface, or scuba-dived into the depths . . . it was not pitch black, and I could see all around me.  Radiation, presumably, in the 0.4~0.7um band.  From above.

  3. Alexb: How oceans are warmed by atmospheric greenhouse gasses is explained in this post

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