Warming isn’t “missing”, it’s “hiding” in the oceans in plain sight

Another reply to a climate-related blog post here: IPCC claim – The missing warming is hiding in the deep oceans!

This is another popular vein of commentary among those resistant to the idea of anthropogenic global warming (AGW). The claim is that AGW is not playing by the proper rules of science, because when the evidence doesn’t line up the way it’s supposed to scientists won’t admit the error and fix it, but instead shift the goal posts.

This one is again building on the “pause” narrative, discussed some in this prior post, but with additional focus on the role of the ocean, part of a larger urban legend version of the pause narrative. In this version, oft-retold in the blogosphere, the “pause” broke all of the expectations of climate science, and so scientists scrambled to explain it, with oceanographer Kevin Trenberth (in a misrepresented quote) saying that the last hope is to look for missing warming in the deep ocean. Then, when the warming wasn’t found there, the “alarmist” scientists pretended that this was fine and there was no problem with climate theory! In real science isn’t your theory supposed to be invalidated if it fails tests, the bloggers reasonably ask?

In the above article the blogger ‘Science or Fiction’ summarizes the scandal this way:

So, by the United Nations climate  theory, energy is supposed to:
1 be trapped by CO2 in the atmosphere

– but fails to warm it!

2 pass the upper 300 meter of the oceans

– without warming it!

3 to warm the deep oceans below 700 meters

– where we lack historical data!
– and where the uncertainty is to large to conclude!

That’s what I call a dead parrot

Sounds damning, and given there is a lot of pent-up desire to believe that all this global warming stuff is a big hoax, this story is continually retold in various forms. To build the story in this form (logically, a straw man), there are a lot of misrepresentations, factual errors and logical errors required, so it is useful to break this summary down into those components. I’ll list glaring visible errors from (a) through (h).

(a) “the United Nations climate theory” – just a minor bit of political framing, but the author wishes the audience to believe that the United Nations via the IPCC is advancing some unique version of climate theory, different from that found in published science. The IPCC of course just summarizes (with copious citations) the state of published research worldwide, and the question at hand – ocean heating as part of global warming generally – is a completely mainstream fact, endorsed by every relevant physical organization and national academy of science one could hope to consult. For example from this statement from the prestigious Scripps Institution of Oceanography:

The essential findings of mainstream climate change science are firm. This is solid settled science. The world is warming. There are many kinds of evidence: air temperatures, ocean temperatures, melting ice, rising sea levels, and much more. Human activities are the main cause.

The use of the “United Nations climate theory” is clearly a political dog whistle; the author doesn’t really attempt to explain what s/he thinks is different about the IPCC version. In the comments the author tries to contrast two published papers which s/he believes are contradictory, implying that the IPCC is cherry picking one set of results over the other. Unfortunately, the provided example is a case of the author making a common error, confusing “deep ocean” warming with warming of the top 2000m, and both papers are consistent with the mainstream view as summarized by the IPCC (see (h) below).


(b) implies the mechanism of global warming is to heat the atmosphere first…

energy is supposed to:
1 be trapped by CO2 in the atmosphere

– but fails to warm it!

The author is building on the “pause” story here, as the pause is mainly a question of cherry-picking a section of (flatter) satellite temperature estimates in the troposphere (about a mile above the surface).

The first implied claim is that the energy is “trapped in the atmosphere”, i.e. the upper air is where this supposed greenhouse effect is happening, so we should look for warming to start there (see c, below).

In physical reality, the greenhouse effect is primarily a radiative effect, and the main heat-trapping mechanism happens via greenhouse gases absorbing infrared emitted by the earth and re-emitting it back to the surface as infrared. Scientists can directly measure the CO2-driven increases in this “downwelling” infrared. So, the associated energy is not first trapped in the atmosphere and then imparted into the ocean by means of hot air warming the water (e.g. by conduction), rather the energy primarily arrives via downwelling infrared, which is mostly hitting the surface of the ocean given the ocean covers most of the surface.

(Note there is a colorful fringe faction which claims that the ocean cannot warm via this mechanism because infrared barely penetrates the top couple of microns, and this top skin of the ocean is cooler than the water below it due to evaporation and emissions happening at the surface, so therefore this cool skin cannot be heating the ocean beneath it. See if you can spot the error there; the main hint is that conservation of energy doesn’t care how deep something penetrates – the energy still won’t “disappear”.)

(c) …but fails to warm it! (the atmosphere)

So, the implied mechanism is wrong, but it’s also an error to claim that the atmosphere isn’t warming. This is worth highlighting just for the irony – in the comments the author makes much of an alleged failure of climate scientists to treat uncertainty correctly, yet here the author is confidently asserting that the upper atmosphere isn’t warming despite the fact that all available data sets show long-term warming trends there.

The “pause” trick, remember, is to argue that there is no statistically significant warming in the upper atmosphere over some selected range of years. The published data for Roy Spencer’s UAH TLT satellite measurement does show raw warming, for example. In other words, you can’t use a section of the recent data here on its own to argue that the atmosphere has warmed more than it would by “chance”. However, you also can’t use this data to confidently argue that the long-term trend has stopped or changed relative to the overall long-term warming pattern as expected from our understanding of physics. So, ‘Science or Fiction’ is providing a great example of how not to treat uncertainty – pretending that uncertainty about the short-term atmosphere trend actually provides certainty that there is no warming!

(d) pretends scientists are claiming that heat has “passed” the top of the ocean to get to deeper layers…

2 pass the upper 300 meter of the oceans

– without warming it!

This is a variant of the “beam me up, Scotty!” argument described in this article about ocean warming by German oceanographer Stefan Rahmstorf (search down for “Scotty”):

Now to the most amusing attempt of “climate skeptics” to wish these scientific results away.  Their argument goes like this:  It is not possible that warming of the deep ocean accelerates at the same time as warming of the upper ocean slows down, because the heat must pass through the upper layer to reach the depths.

Read the rest of the article for the explanation – there are actually natural mechanisms by which a lower layer of the ocean can warm faster than an upper (as a thought experiment, fill a vertically split bathtub with warm water on top, cold water on the bottom, and remove the divider – magically, the lower part warms while the upper actually cools, despite the fact that heat should rise!)

(e) … without warming it! (the top 300m of the ocean)

The author quotes Balmaseda et al 2013 as finding “small warming in the upper 300 m” as source for this claim of “no warming”. Figure 1 of that link shows 0-300m continuing to warm but a much sharper rise in warming in the 0-700m range during 2000-2008. The paper also describes the likely mechanisms – La Nina periods are subject to stronger surface winds/currents and increased coastal downwelling, so more uptake of heat generally (buried vs. released into the atmosphere) and more mixing into depths. This is also what Rahmstorf describes in the above article.

At any rate, the author’s own source contradicts him/her – small warming relative to the larger 0-700m section does not support a claim of “no warming”.

(f) ignores the 300-700m range…

3 to warm the deep oceans below 700 meters

we’ve jumped to below 700m, ignoring 300-700m where lots of well-observed heating took place, in order to handwave about deeper ocean heating in the next error…

(g) claims lack of historical data means we don’t know anything about ocean heating below 700m

– where we lack historical data!

True (yes, let’s pause to reflect on the fact that, remarkably, something in here was accurate), there is poor historical data on ocean temperatures below 700m [edit: in fairness, I believe the expendable bathythermograph data goes back to the mid 60s, down to 1000m?], but the ARGO floats, deployed starting around 2000, dive to 2000m so we have complete data for the most recent decade, which is the subject of discussion at hand.

The author’s premise is that “missing warming” in the last decade proves AGW false, yet the case rests on the idea of throwing out the data from the last decade because… we don’t have the same level of historical data? Why would the absence of earlier data mean you have to throw out current data? By this logic all empirical evidence gathered on earth is inadmissible. What part of throwing out data means that such data has falsified theory?

As you can see, quite an amazing amount of tap-dancing involved in this overall straw man / urban legend.

(h) and that the uncertainty is to large to conclude anything

In the comments, the author indicates that s/he bases this claim on the paper Wunsch and Heimbach 2014. This is one of those papers that got a lot of play and misrepresentation among anti-AGW bloggers because it has some pause-promoting quotable bits, such as:

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

This paper is actually about warming in the ocean abyss, i.e. below the warmer top 0-2000m (one of the common tricks/errors of anti-AGW combatants is to confuse these two things, because there is not evidence of a lot of warming in the ocean abyss – actually slightly bad news, as it would be good if more heat were getting sequestered way down there, well over a mile underwater.)

What the quote above actually says is that the precision of measurement of total ocean heat content does not allow us to resolve a detail question like how much a period of slower surface warming (‘pause’) is fully accounted for via ocean warming, in part because the amount of heat in question is small compared to the overall ocean warming trend (remember that the thermal mass of the ocean completely dwarfs that of the atmosphere, by a couple of orders of magnitude.)

The author (and many blogs in the anti-AGW sphere) want to believe that this quote says that we can’t attribute any warming to the ocean with any confidence at all – but unfortunately, that’s not what it says at all. In a predictable turn of events, one of the authors (Harvard’s Carl Wunch) felt compelled to correct some of this misrepresentation in a letter to the Australian (a media source known for anti-AGW articles) :

We never assert that global warming and warming of the oceans are not occurring — we do find an ocean warming, particularly in the upper regions. Contrary to the implications of Lloyd’s article, parts of the deep ocean are warming, parts are cooling, and although the global abyssal average is negative, the value is tiny in a global warming context.

Science or Fiction’s central thesis is that the expected warming of the planet is not being observed. His own sources state unequivocally that the globe and the oceans are warming. It takes the net sum of the contortions above in order to ignore this straightforward validation, and free oneself to engage in various indulgent and erudite hand-wringing about the dire crimes against the philosophy of science being committed.

The latter is such a popular activity that it is somewhat amazing to observe the proportion of effort spent tediously expounding on the obvious (that failed predictions are bad for theories) relative to the amount of effort spent actually building/supporting claims that predictions have failed (in a scientifically rigorous and specific way.) Hint: this would entail accurately explaining in physical theory why something is predicted, either via physics/math or by citing experts who can articulate what is predicted, then specifically evaluating that prediction. For some related discussion about AGW as a scientific theory and how it is validated, see this interesting essay by geophysicist Ray Pierrehumbert.



7 thoughts on “Warming isn’t “missing”, it’s “hiding” in the oceans in plain sight

  1. Is there no variation? It seems from all climate science denier walks of life and all climate science denier strata–from the lowest, most offensive commenter to the highest, most erudite “expert”–behind the curtain of fact of Anthropogenic Global Warming is a global sociopolitical conspiracy to destroy capitalism and thus “our way of life.”

    To get there, they inevitably try to refute each and every missing piece of the puzzle within the demonstrably sound AGW theory as each one is just as inevitably revealed. The good news (depending on one’s perspective!) is that each refutation attempt is getting more and more difficult for them to construct.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. “In physical reality, the greenhouse effect is primarily a radiative effect, and the main heat-trapping mechanism happens via greenhouse gases absorbing infrared emitted by the earth and re-emitting it back to the surface as infrared.”

    Isn´t the primary mechanism that the CO2 molecules absorb energy around 14 µm, and during the average time it takes before the energy is reemitted at the same frequency, the energy is more likely transferred to colliding molecules and thereby increasing their energy?


  3. The figures tells us that 2 / 3 of the energy accumulation deduced from IPCC´s central estimate is missing.

    For 0 – 2000 m ocean depth, from 2005 – 2015,
    the temperature increase deduced from the theory put forward by IPCC is :

    0,063 K for the lowest limit for radiative forcing (1,2 W / m2)
    0,13 K for the central estimate for radiative forcing (2,3 W / m2)
    0,19 K for the highest limit for radiative forcing (3,3 W / m2)

    A temperature increase of only 0,045 K is observed for 0 – 2000 m ocean depth, from 2005 – 2015.

    So where is the missing energy then?

    The fact is that IPCC cannot account for the lack of warming!


    1. I replied on your blog; it is fun (oversimplified) napkin math; I’m not sure where the biggest problems with it are but on quick scan there are some clearly bad assumptions. I have some questions myself about doing this sort of comparison and will ask around to see if I can get more enlightened. I think you are a bit handicapped by your unwillingness to respect and listen to expertise in the domain so it’s probably up to me to try to answer such things; I may or may not have time. 🙂


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