Scientists find 20 years of deep water warming leading to sea level rise

September 21, 2010
Sea-level rise has the potential to reshape the coastal environment. Credit: NOAA

Scientists analyzing measurements taken in the deep ocean around the globe over the past two decades find a warming trend that contributes to sea level rise, especially around Antarctica.

Greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as carbon dioxide, cause heating of the Earth. Over the past few decades, at least 80 percent of this heat energy has gone into the ocean, warming it in the process.

“Previous studies have shown that the upper ocean is warming, but our analysis determines how much additional heat the deep ocean is storing from warming observed all the way to the ,” said Sarah Purkey, an oceanographer at the University of Washington and lead author of the study.

This study shows that the deep ocean - below about 3,300 feet - is taking up about 16 percent of what the upper ocean is absorbing. The authors note that there are several possible causes for this deep warming: a shift in Southern Ocean winds, a change in the density of what is called Antarctic Bottom Water, or how quickly that bottom water is formed near the Antarctic, where it sinks to fill the deepest, coldest portions of the ocean around much of the globe.

The scientists found the strongest deep warming around Antarctica, weakening with distance from its source as it spreads around the globe. While the temperature increases are small (about 0.03°C per decade in the deep Southern Ocean, less elsewhere), the large volume of the ocean over which they are found and the high capacity of water to absorb heat means that this warming accounts for a huge amount of . If this deep ocean heating were going into the atmosphere instead - a physical impossibility - it would be warming at a rate of about 3°C (over 5°F) per decade.

“A warming Earth causes in two ways,” said Gregory Johnson, a NOAA oceanographer at the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle, and the study’s co-author. “The warming heats the ocean, causing it to expand, and melts continental ice, adding water to the ocean. The expansion and added water both cause the sea to encroach on the land.”

Sea level has been rising at around 3 mm (1/8 of a inch) per year on average since 1993, with about half of that caused by ocean thermal expansion and the other half because of additional water added to the ocean, mostly from melting continental ice. Purkey and Johnson note that deep warming of the Southern Ocean accounts for about 1.2 mm (about 1/20th of an inch) per year of the sea level rise around Antarctica in the past few decades.

The highly accurate temperature observations used in this study come from ship-based instruments that measure conductivity through salinity, temperature and depth. These measurements were taken on a series of hydrographic surveys of the global ocean in the 1990s through the World Ocean Circulation Experiment and in the 2000s in support of the Climate Variability program. These surveys are now coordinated by the international Global Ship-based Hydrographic Investigations Program.

Explore further: Ocean Stored Significant Warming Over Last 16 Years: Research

More information: The study, “Warming of Global Abyssal and Deep Southern Ocean Waters between the 1990s and 2000s: Contributions to Global Heat and Sea Level Rise Budgets,” authored by Sarah G. Purkey and Gregory C. Johnson, will be published in an upcoming edition of the Journal of Climate.

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not rated yet Sep 29, 2010
"with about half of that caused by ocean thermal expansion and the other half because of additional water added to the ocean, mostly from melting continental ice."

Perhaps splitting hairs here, but these proportions don't match up with all the sources I can find. It's generally accepted that half of sea level rise is from thermal expansion, but it's also generally accepted that ground water use by humans makes up about 25% of sea level rise. Therefore the part about "mostly from melting continental ice" may be a little misleading. Most sources seem to think it's a 50/50 split between ground water and melting ice.

Of topic, but worth discussing: Does human water use cause global warming or global refridgeration? We certainly add a bunch of water vapor to the air, and H2O is the strongest GHG by far. I wonder how much H2O humans put into the air compared to CO2?

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