National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2008

Chapter 5—Observations: Oceanic climate change and sea level

Bindoff, N.L., J. Willebrand, V. Artale, A. Cazenave, J.M. Gregory, S. Gulev, K. Hanawa, C. Le Quéré, S. Levitus, Y. Nojiri, C.K. Shum, L.D. Talley, A.S. Unnikrishnan, J. Antonov, N.R. Bates, T. Boyer, D. Chambers, B. Chao, J. Church, R. Curry, S. Emerson, R. Feely, H. Garcia, M. González-Davíla, N. Gruber, S. Josey, T. Joyce, K. Kim, B. King, A. Koertzinger, K. Lambeck, K. Laval, N. Lefevre, E. Leuliette, R. Marsh, C. Mauritzen, M. McPhaden, C. Millot, C. Milly, R. Molinari, R.S. Nerem, T. Ono, M. Pahlow, T.-H. Peng, A. Proshutinsky, B. Qiu, D. Quadfasel, S. Rahmstorf, S. Rintoul, M. Rixen, P. Rizzoli, C. Sabine, D. Sahagian, F. Schott, Y. Song, D. Stammer, T. Suga, C. Sweeney, M. Tamisiea, M. Tsimplis, R. Wanninkhof, J. Willis, A.P.S. Wong, P. Woodworth, I. Yashayaev, and I. Yasuda

In Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis. Contribution of Working Group I to the Fourth Assessment Report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, Solomon S., D. Qin, M. Manning, Z. Chen, M. Marquis, K.B. Averyt, M. Tignor, and H.L. Miller (eds.), Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, United Kingdom and New York, NY, U.S.A., 385–428 (2007)

Executive Summary

  • The oceans are warming. Over the period 1961 to 2003, global ocean temperature has risen by 0.10°C from the surface to a depth of 700 m. Consistent with the Third Assessment Report (TAR), global ocean heat content (0–3,000 m) has increased during the same period, equivalent to absorbing energy at a rate of 0.21 ± 0.04 W m–2 globally averaged over the Earth’s surface. Two-thirds of this energy is absorbed between the surface and a depth of 700 m. Global ocean heat content observations show considerable interannual and inter-decadal variability superimposed on the longer-term trend. Relative to 1961 to 2003, the period 1993 to 2003 has high rates of warming but since 2003 there has been some cooling.
  • Large-scale, coherent trends of salinity are observed for 1955 to 1998, and are characterised by a global freshening in subpolar latitudes and a salinification of shallower parts of the tropical and subtropical oceans. Freshening is pronounced in the Pacific while increasing salinities prevail over most of Atlantic and Indian Oceans. These trends are consistent with changes in precipitation and inferred larger water transport in the atmosphere from low latitudes to high latitudes and from the Atlantic to the Pacific. Observations do not allow for a reliable estimate of the global average change in salinity in the oceans.
  • Key oceanic water masses are changing; however, there is no clear evidence for ocean circulation changes. Southern Ocean mode waters and Upper Circumpolar Deep Waters have warmed from the 1960s to about 2000. A similar but weaker pattern of warming in the Gulf Stream and Kuroshio mode waters in the North Atlantic and North Pacific has been observed. Long-term cooling is observed in the North Atlantic subpolar gyre and in the central North Pacific. Since 1995, the upper North Atlantic subpolar gyre has been warming and becoming more saline. It is very likely that up to the end of the 20th century, the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation has been changing significantly at interannual to decadal time scales. Over the last 50 years, no coherent evidence for a trend in the strength of the meridional overturning circulation has been found.
  • Ocean biogeochemistry is changing. The total inorganic carbon content of the oceans has increased by 118 ± 19 GtC between the end of the pre-industrial period (about 1750) and 1994 and continues to increase. It is more likely than not that the fraction of emitted carbon dioxide that was taken up by the oceans has decreased, from 42 ± 7% during 1750 to 1994 to 37 ± 7% during 1980 to 2005. This would be consistent with the expected rate at which the oceans can absorb carbon, but the uncertainty in this estimate does not allow firm conclusions. The increase in total inorganic carbon caused a decrease in the depth at which calcium carbonate dissolves, and also caused a decrease in surface ocean pH by an average of 0.1 units since 1750. Direct observations of pH at available time series stations for the last 20 years also show trends of decreasing pH at a rate of 0.02 pH units per decade. There is evidence for decreased oxygen concentrations, likely driven by reduced rates of water renewal, in the thermocline (~100–1,000 m) in most ocean basins from the early 1970s to the late 1990s.
  • Global mean sea level has been rising. From 1961 to 2003, the average rate of sea level rise was 1.8 ± 0.5 mm yr–1. For the 20th century, the average rate was 1.7 ± 0.5 mm yr–1, consistent with the TAR estimate of 1 to 2 mm yr– 1. There is high confidence that the rate of sea level rise has increased between the mid-19th and the mid-20th centuries. Sea level change is highly non-uniform spatially, and in some regions, rates are up to several times the global mean rise, while in other regions sea level is falling. There is evidence for an increase in the occurrence of extreme high water worldwide related to storm surges, and variations in extremes during this period are related to the rise in mean sea level and variations in regional climate.
  • The rise in global mean sea level is accompanied by considerable decadal variability. For the period 1993 to 2003, the rate of sea level rise is estimated from observations with satellite altimetry as 3.1 ± 0.7 mm yr–1, significantly higher than the average rate. The tide gauge record indicates that similar large rates have occurred in previous 10-year periods since 1950. It is unknown whether the higher rate in 1993 to 2003 is due to decadal variability or an increase in the longer-term trend.
  • There are uncertainties in the estimates of the contributions to sea level change but understanding has significantly improved for recent periods. For the period 1961 to 2003, the average contribution of thermal expansion to sea level rise was 0.4 ± 0.1 mm yr–1. As reported in the TAR, it is likely that the sum of all known contributions for this period is smaller than the observed sea level rise, and therefore it is not possible to satisfactorily account for the processes causing sea level rise. However, for the period 1993 to 2003, for which the observing system is much better, the contributions from thermal expansion (1.6 ± 0.5 mm yr–1) and loss of mass from glaciers, ice caps and the Greenland and Antarctic Ice Sheets together give 2.8 ± 0.7 mm yr–1. For the latter period, the climate contributions constitute the main factors in the sea level budget, which is closed to within known errors.
  • The patterns of observed changes in global ocean heat content and salinity, sea level, thermal expansion, water mass evolution and biogeochemical parameters described in this chapter are broadly consistent with the observed ocean surface changes and the known characteristics of the large-scale ocean circulation.

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