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Monckton Myth #1: Cooling oceans

Posted on 15 January 2011 by John Cook

Christopher Monckton is a prominent and popular global warming skeptic. The Republican Party have on numerous occasions invited him to testify to Congress or the Senate. He is flown all over the globe to speak at public engagements. The Watts Up With That (WUWT) website often grant him a soap box - one example being an exhortation to WUWT readers to pressure John Abraham's college after Abraham critiqued a Monckton presentation. And last week, WUWT republished in full a long article by Monckton responding to a Mike Steketee article in The Australian. The glowing response from WUWT readers is perhaps best summed up by the very first comment: "The Lord has done well, he’s a hero in my books".

Monckton's response to Steketee's article is a clear example of the rhetorical techniques employed by climate skeptics to paint a misleading picture of climate science. As the article covers many points, we'll take a close look at Monckton's disinformation through a series of detailed blog posts, examining the science discussed and exposing the techniques Monckton uses. We'll start with his first point:

"A recent paper by Professors David Douglass and Robert Knox of Rochester University, New York, has established that – contrary to various climate-extremist assertions – there has been no net accumulation of “missing energy” in the form of heat in the oceans worldwide in the six years since ocean heat content was first reliably measured by the 3000 automated ARGO bathythermographs in 2003. This finding implies that the amount of warming we can expect from even quite a large increase in CO2 concentration is far less than the IPCC and other climate-extremist groups maintain."

Firstly, Monckton incorrectly describes ARGO as bathythermographs while they're actually profiling floats. But that's nitpicking - his key assertion is that the oceans are not accumulating heat, based on the paper 'Recent energy balance of Earth' (Knox & Douglass 2010). This paper considers several estimates of upper ocean heat and find a slight cooling trend in several of the estimates (they also include one estimate that finds a significant warming trend, more on this later). However, this analysis fails to include a number of other reconstructions of ocean heat.

In an effort to create the most reliable measure of ocean heat, various teams across the world combined their efforts into a single 'best estimate' of ocean heat (Lyman 2010). What they found was robust warming in the upper ocean over the 16 years from 1993 to 2008. While the warming trend of the upper ocean from 2003 to 2008 is not as great as the long-term trend, the best estimate indicates the upper ocean is still accumulating heat over this period.

Upper ocean heat content anomaly
Figure 1: Ocean Heat Content anomaly from various teams. Ocean heat is calculated from 0 to 700 metres (Lyman 2010)

However, Knox and Douglass only select estimates with a cooling trend, with one interesting exception. They mention one analysis of ocean heat content down to 2000 metres (von Schuckmann 2009) which finds significant ocean warming across the top 2000 metres of the ocean from 2003 to 2008.

Figure 2: Global ocean heat storage (0–2000 metres), measured in 108 Joules per square metre (von Schuckmann 2009).

To put this into perspective, in Figure 3 below, the 'best estimate' of upper ocean heat (0 to 700 metres) from Lyman 2010 is compared to the estimate of deeper ocean heat (0 to 2000 metres) from von Schuckmann 2009. The black line is upper ocean heat and shows a slight warming trend from 2003 to 2008. The blue line is ocean heat down to 2000 metres, showing greater warming than the upper ocean. This suggests heat is penetrating down below 700 metres. To state that the ocean is not accumulating heat (or worse, that the ocean is cooling), Knox and Douglass as well as Monckton fail to take into account all the evidence.

Figure 3: Changing heat content of the global ocean, with respect to the mean of 1993 to 2008 (Trenberth 2010). This analysis samples the ocean to 700 m depth and gives an average warming trend of 0.64 W m?2 (pink line). The data available from Argo floats since 2003 enable an estimate to 2,000 m depth (blue line).

Of course, this is not the final word on ocean heat. Another analysis (Purkey & Johnson 2010) reconstructs ocean heat warming down to abyssal depths and find significant amounts of heat building up even at the bottom of the ocean.

Figure 4: Rate of ocean warming. Areas of warming are shaded in red and regions of cooling are shaded in blue with intensity scaled by the magnitude of the warming. The basins from south to north are the Southeast Pacific Basin, Chile Basin, Peru Basin, and Pacific Basin (Purkey & Johnson 2010).

There are several other indicators of building ocean heat. Satellites observing incoming and outgoing radiation are able to measure changes in the planet's energy imbalance from year to year. What they find is the planet's energy imbalance continues to increase (Trenberth & Fasullo 2010).

Sea level is also driven in large part by changes in ocean heat. As the ocean warms, thermal expansion leads to sea level rise. The other contributor to sea level rise is melting ice sheets and glaciers so sea level rise in general is a good measure of global warming. Over the period of Monckton's alleged "no accumulation of ocean heat", sea levels have continued to rise.

Figure 5: Global sea level rise, inverse barometer applied, seasonal signal removed (University of Colorado at Boulder).

To properly understand what's happening with ocean warming, you need to consider all the evidence - measurements of the upper ocean, deeper ocean heat, abyssal ocean warming, sea level rise and satellite measurements of energy imbalance. Imagine a table covered with all this evidence. What Monckton does is rummage through this evidence, extract the one piece that seems to back his "no warming" position, sweep the rest of the evidence off the table and unequivocally exclaim "there is no net accumulation of heat in the oceans". This is not skepticism. This is ignoring the full body of evidence.

Note to readers. Remember our comments policy: ad hominem comments will be deleted. This thread is for discussing the science of ocean heat, not for personal attacks on Monckton.

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Comments 51 to 68 out of 68:

  1. Monckton's resemblence to the late Argetinian president Nestor Kirchner is stunning. (sorry, I know it's totally irrelevant. Just could not resist.)
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  2. 48 Bibliovermis No, you are not misreading me, I simply did not know that what I was calling for had been covered by the IPCC, so no apologies necessary on your part and humble ones on mine. It is perhaps a reflection of the status of the IPCC in the minds of the general public that when someone like myself who is not a scientist, but very interested in it generally, and Climate Change in particular, was unaware of that aspect of its work. I try to keep abreast of events, but have neither the time nor the inclination to read the whole of the IPCC report, relying instead on trusted sources to produce their interpretation of it. I struggle with a considerable amount of the detailed science published on this page, and I am not particularly stupid if my IQ of 135 is any guide, so we face an uphill struggle if we are to convince those members of the general public who have little or no interest in science. Perhaps Professor Lovelock is right when he says that, having swarmed as a species, we are in for a cull in the same way that all other members of the animal kingdom are when they have outgrown their habitat. Perhaps the majority of those that have replied to my posts are also right, judging by the lack of alternative suggestions as to how we move from a business as usual situation i.e. there is nothing we can do other than to carry on as we are. (Or copy ancient sci-fi films and have a bunch of church leaders arguing about the wingspan of an angel assisting us in the matter. Let’s face it, they will probably come up with “God works in mysterious ways, his wonders to perform” and say we should let The Big Feller get on with it.) Heaven help us – literally!
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  3. funglestrumpet, Thank you for demonstrating what separates the (honest) skeptics from the deniers & contrarians who claim to be such; the ability to learn from the resources presented to you. Keep asking questions & keep updating your understanding. I'm self-taught in this field by that very process. It is difficult to keep the cynicism at bay, but it is necessary in order to continue productive, civil discussions. Now, back to the topic at hand - ocean cooling. Claims of ocean cooling are the same as claims of surface cooling, a failure to take into account all of the evidence & asking questions in defense of preconceived notions rather than in search of knowledge.
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  4. Anne-Marie Blackburn #28 The references are in these threads here: Have a look at BP and KL comments - particularly BP. You will need a spare hour and a passing knowledge of thermodynamics, probably the surface area of the Earth and a calculator which runs to E22.
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    Moderator Response: [Daniel Bailey] FYI, "primary literature" means a peer-reviewed publication, like PNAS, NATURE, GRL, etc., or the studies published therein directly. Blogs, even Skeptical Science, don't count. This is part of doing the work and showing your work to support your position.
  5. Moderator #54 Thanks Daniel Bailey. If you read the many threads on this blog concerning OHC - you will find ample workings from me(calculations in layman's terms) and detailed explanations. In fact I have been accused (probably by you too) of flogging a dead horse more than once. A good understanding of Dr Trenberth's Aug09 paper and his subsequent variations on its theme is needed by those who want to engage in a discussion on warming imbalances and OHC. I have referred to it countless times. I run two businesses and try to design and make things during the day - so time is limited for doing more voluntary work. If some intelligent SS contributor could access me to a river of climate science gold - I would be happy to engage as a professional paper writer.
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  6. #55: KL, These guys have lots of gold just waiting to support some enterprising climate science; you could always apply for a grant.
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  7. Ken Lambert Daniel has already pointed out that I'd like evidence from the peer-reviewed literature, not random postings on blogs. If you are making statements that are contrary to what is found in the scientific literature, I need a bit more than your word that you are right. I don't know you and I don't see any reason to think that you are more likely to be correct than climate scientists, especially as you have failed to substantiate your assertions with solid scientific evidence, i.e. from literature that has been peer-reviewed and has withstood the scrutiny of experts. This is what I was taught in the first year of my undergraduate degree.
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  8. Anne-Marie Blackburn #57 All the literature critiqued in my 'random postings' is peer reviewed. Think of me as a particularly hard marker.
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  9. Ken Lambert Yes, but until you publish your own findings in the peer-reviewed literature, and those findings are replicated by scientists, I have no way of knowing whether the points you make are valid. Well I could try and become an expert in the field but I don't really have the time. You said the pre-2003 data is probably highly unreliable - where in the scientific literature can I find an analysis that supports this assertion?
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  10. KL, All the literature critiqued in my 'random postings' is peer reviewed.Think of me as a particularly hard marker First, do not flatter yourself. Second, a perusal of said threads shows that you and BP are by no stretch of the imagination experts on OHC. Third, publish a paper in a leading peer-reviewed journal on OHC and then you can crow about having had something "peer-reviewed". The fact is both the ARGO and XBT data have issues. But do not presume that the researchers and experts in the field are not aware of this and that they are not working incredibly hard to address the issues. And another error in Monckton's statement is that there were not 3000 active ARGO floats in 2003. As BP has noted, by the end of 2003 there were about 1000 active floats, the "magic" 3000 number was not achieved until sometime in 2007.
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  11. What is peer reviewed literature? it has been held up as some kind of gold standard but as The Journal Geoscience Research demonstrates anyone can set up a peer reviewed journal, and especially easily online. Maybe the IPCC will need to more closely define the concept.
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  12. @ Albatross....and what do you know-its been since about 2007-2008 that we've had fairly consistent increases in Sea Surface temperatures. Methinks the 2003-2007 data might well be the "artifact" that BP & KL keep banging on about!
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  13. Anne-Marie Blackburn, Marcus, Albatros Why don't you pop across to the 'correct' thread for some more good banging about.
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  14. Albatros #60 "The fact is both the ARGO and XBT data have issues. But do not presume that the researchers and experts in the field are not aware of this and that they are not working incredibly hard to address the issues." So what does that mean Albatros? The data is useless from both Argo and XBT, or XBT only, or Argo only? I would have thought the proper scientific method (peer reviewed of course) would be to disclose the reliability of the measurement and not use it if not meeting a recognized standard of reliability. Surely the greater the coverage and numbers the more accurate the measurement unless there is systemic fault which applies to all the instruments.
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  15. Ken, Data is never useless. As John says: you need to look at the whole picture. There is not a "recognized standard of reliability" for data. Have you ever worked with real data?The data needs to be evaluated carefully and the reliability has to be assessed by people who know what they are doing. That is why professionals get paid to do their work. Bloggers who try to over evaluate the data, especially over short periods like the time the Argo floats have been established, contribute little to knowledge. See Yoopers graph for the most recent data. The trend is up in OHC. That data is still not the final word, more work is being done to pin down the OHC.
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  16. Ken @64, "So what does that mean Albatros? The data is useless from both Argo and XBT, or XBT only, or Argo only?" Please do not toy with me Ken, and please do not misrepresent what I said. I said nothing about either data set being "useless". Having allegedly read the literature, you should know that both data platforms have issues, but that does not render the data "useless". In all my years doing research (and I bet my scientific colleagues are in the same position) I have never yet worked with a perfect data set, each and every one of them has had issues to varying degrees. Yet, despite those problems and limitations, the science has advanced and breakthroughs have been made (some of them significant).
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  17. michael sweet #65 7-8 years of Argo is hardly a short period in the context of a 16-17 year timeline on the Charts of OHC we are talking about. I have suggested in many threads about OHC that tethered buoys all measuring one tile of ocean at one time is the ideal system to get accurate OHC changes. I do not know how well Argo approaches this 'ideal' system, however 3500 now deployed has to be vastly better than the poor spatial coverage of XBT and preceding methods.
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  18. #67: "7-8 years of Argo is hardly a short period" Seven-eight years is a short period in any climate context. The length of the data record doesn't change that.
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