National Oceanic and
Atmospheric Administration
United States Department of Commerce


FY 2019

Unabated bottom water warming and freshening in the South Pacific Ocean

Purkey, S.G., G.C. Johnson, L.D. Talley, B.M. Sloyan, S.E. Wijffels, W. Smethie, S. Mecking, and K. Katsumata

J. Geophys. Res., 124(3), 1778-1794, doi: 10.1029/2018JC014775, View online (2019)

Abyssal ocean warming contributed substantially to anthropogenic ocean heat uptake and global sea level rise between 1990 and 2010. In the 2010s, several hydrographic sections crossing the South Pacific Ocean were occupied for a third or fourth time since the 1990s, allowing for an assessment of the decadal variability in the local abyssal ocean properties among the 1990s, 2000s, and 2010s. These observations from three decades reveal steady to accelerated bottom water warming since the 1990s. Strong abyssal (z > 4,000 m) warming of 3.5 (±1.4) m°C/year (m°C = 10−3 °C) is observed in the Ross Sea, directly downstream from bottom water formation sites, with warming rates of 2.5 (±0.4) m°C/year to the east in the Amundsen‐Bellingshausen Basin and 1.3 (±0.2) m°C/year to the north in the Southwest Pacific Basin, all associated with a bottom‐intensified descent of the deepest isotherms. Warming is consistently found across all sections and their occupations within each basin, demonstrating that the abyssal warming is monotonic, basin‐wide, and multidecadal. In addition, bottom water freshening was strongest in the Ross Sea, with smaller amplitude in the Amundsen‐Bellingshausen Basin in the 2000s, but is discernible in portions of the Southwest Pacific Basin by the 2010s. These results indicate that bottom water freshening, stemming from strong freshening of Ross Shelf Waters, is being advected along deep isopycnals and mixed into deep basins, albeit on longer timescales than the dynamically driven, wave‐propagated warming signal. We quantify the contribution of the warming to local sea level and heat budgets.

Plain Language Summary. Over 90% of the excess energy gained by Earth's climate system has been absorbed by the oceans, with about 10% found deeper than 2,000 m. The rates and patterns of deep and abyssal (deeper than 4,000 m) ocean warming, while vital for understanding how this heat sink might behave in the future, are poorly known owing to limited data. Here we use highly accurate data collected by ships along oceanic transects with decadal revisits to quantify how much heat and freshwater has entered the South Pacific Ocean between the 1990s and 2010s. We find widespread warming throughout the deep basins there and evidence that the warming rate has accelerated in the 2010s relative to the 1990s. The warming is strongest near Antarctica where the abyssal ocean is ventilated by surface waters that sink to the sea floor and hence become bottom water, but abyssal warming is observed everywhere. In addition, we observe an infusion of freshwater propagating along the pathway of the bottom water as it moves northward from Antarctica. We quantify the deep ocean warming contributions to heat uptake as well as sea level rise through thermal expansion.

Feature Publications | Outstanding Scientific Publications

Contact Sandra Bigley |