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An Alarming New Study Suggests the Oceans Are Warming 60 Percent Faster. A Statistician Disagrees.

Is the study's worst-case climate scenario wrong?

GlobalWarmingAndrewParfenovDreamstimeAndrew Parfenov/Dreamstime"Startling new research finds large buildup of heat in the oceans, suggesting a faster rate of global warming," said the Washington Post headline last week. The Los Angeles Times headline declared: "Oceans warming faster than anticipated, giving even less time to stave off worse impacts of climate change, study finds." Both newspapers were covering a new study in Nature by the Princeton geoscientist Laure Resplandy and her team.

Resplandy and company had found a novel way to measure the amount of heat being absorbed by the world's oceans. Heretofore, climate researchers have sought to deduce warming trends in the oceans using data collected from thermometers, recently including a network of 3,200 Argo floats deployed throughout the world's waters. Resplandy's method takes advantage of the fact that as the oceans warm they release both oxygen and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a quantity they call "atmospheric potential oxygen," or APO.

"As the ocean warms, these gases tend to be released into the air, which increases APO levels," explains the press release accompanying the study. "APO also is influenced by burning fossil fuels and by an ocean process involving the uptake of excess fossil-fuel CO2. By comparing the changes in APO they observed with the changes expected due to fossil-fuel use and carbon dioxide uptake, the researchers were able to calculate how much APO emanated from the ocean becoming warmer. That amount coincides the heat-energy content of the ocean."

What's great about this new technique is that it is an independent measure of the oceans' heat content.

NatureNature

The team's research "suggests that ocean warming is at the high end of previous estimates, with implications for policy-relevant measurements of the Earth response to climate change, such as climate sensitivity to greenhouse gases and the thermal component of sea-level rise." How much higher? Resplandy and company calculate that the amount of heat being absorbed by the oceans is more than 60 percent higher per year than the estimates offered by the United Nations' Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in 2014.

That would be worrisome, because it would mean that equilibrium climate sensitivity (ECS) is higher than many other researchers had thought. ECS represents how much the average global temperature would ultimately increase if the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere doubles above the preindustrial level. The figure has huge implications for policy. If future warming is at the low end, humanity has more time to adapt and to shift energy production away from the fossil fuels that are loading up the atmosphere with extra carbon dioxide. If it's at the high end, we'd need to speed up our efforts to adapt and shift energy production to low-carbon sources.

"The new ocean temperature estimates," reports The New York Times, "if proven accurate, could be another indication that the global warming of the past few decades has exceeded conservative estimates and has been more closely in line with scientists' worst-case scenarios."

If proven accurate is the relevant phrase. The study was peer-reviewed and published in one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, but the developers of any new scientific technique recognize that it must undergo skeptical scrutiny before it can be accepted as valid by the wider scientific community.

As it happens, independent climate researcher and statistician Nic Lewis thinks that he has identified a major flaw in the Nature ocean heat uptake study. Lewis is no stranger to the scientific debate over climate sensitivity. He and former Georgia Tech climatologist Judith Curry published a study earlier this year in The Journal of Climate concluding that "for any future emissions scenario, future warming is likely to be substantially lower than the central computer model-simulated level projected by the IPCC, and highly unlikely to exceed that level." Specifically, they think the models are running almost two times hotter than the analysis of historical data suggests that future temperatures will be.

So what error does Lewis think that he has identified in the new Nature study? Using the APO values and the data in the article itself, Lewis derives an ocean heat uptake trend that is basically the same as other researchers have found using ocean temperature data, not 60 percent higher. He can't identify exactly why the values he derives differ from those reported, but he speculates that the computer code used in the study might not have taken into account the fertilization effect of anthropogenic aerosol deposition—which promotes marine photosynthesis—and the changes in solubility, biology, and ocean circulation due to warming.

I have reached out to both Resplandy and Lewis seeking comment. Via email, Lewis responded: "I've had no substantive response from Professor Resplandy, just a non-committal reply saying that they were looking into the questions I had raised and if they found anything that needed correction they would address it. Unfortunately, they have every incentive to conclude that they don't need to take any action! So do Nature; journals don't like being made to look foolish."

I have not heard back from Resplandy yet. I expect that she and her colleagues need time for a careful evaluation of Lewis' arguments.

This is an ongoing scientific debate, and I will keep readers informed as it proceeds.

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  • Fist of Etiquette||

    Who are these people who like to step into a cold ocean?

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    People with big penises that are not threatened by shrinkage. You wouldn't understand.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    You wouldn't understand.

    I wood.

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    Canadians who like to swim in the ocean?

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

  • Just Say'n||

    "I expect that she and her colleagues need time for a careful evaluation of Lewis' arguments."

    That's hilarious. Thanks for the laugh

  • BYODB||

    Yeah, more like if you ignore it maybe the critics will go away or be ignored by the media. What are the odd's that they left out variables on purpose to 'drive the conservation' on global cooling global warming climate change.

  • Just Say'n||

    Somewhere in the realm of 100%.

  • Bill||

    They have posted a comment on the university web page that
    they realize they calculated the uncertainty improperly and are
    working to fix it.

  • Jerryskids||

    "Oceans warming faster than anticipated, giving even less time to stave off worse impacts of climate change, study finds."

    Weren't we just told recently that it was already too late? What's less time than no time?

  • Just Say'n||

    The beauty about predicting the apocalypse is that you can never be wrong. The "science as soothsayer" crowd has been running a pretty sweet racket since Malthus started the genre.

  • BYODB||

    So wait, you're saying we don't need to cleanse the world of human filth? Sheesh, you're a terrible scientist!

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

  • Just Say'n||

    I imagine you take Paul Ehrlichman serious too

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    I don't, but thanks for playing.

  • Just Say'n||

    How can you not he's a leading advocate warning of the rising temperature of sea levels? I'm sure he has it right this time

  • ||

    No need to be alarmed.

    You listened to what she's saying, right? That methane got there because what is now a frozen taiga used to be a more temperate deciduous forest or even warmer biome.

  • Chipper Morning Baculum||

    That transition happened over millions of years. The current transition is happening over a much tighter time scale.

  • ||

    That transition happened over millions of years.

    1. No it didn't the last glacial period was 12K years ago. Millions of years between glaciation and they'd need a drill to get through to the liquid water.

    2. So what? Is there some sort of time limit on temperatures?

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    Same as those idiots crying over corals dying from a few feet of sea level rise (projected! modeled!) when the sea level rose 4-500 feet just 10-15000 years ago and corals have been around for millions of years.

  • Sometimes a Great Notion||

    "since Malthus started the genre"

    Older then him.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Eschatology

  • Rossami||

    Soothsaying is older. As you point out, much, much older. But "science as soothsayer" arguably did start with Malthus.

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    I thought we had ten years, the latest estimate of the point of no return.

    Cooling a whole damned ocean or two!

    Look at the opportunity to haul cooked Charlie right out of the ocean and can him on the way back to port. Think of the efficiencies!

  • handsoffmypineapples||

    No no no! We had ten years left about 30 years ago. Now it's "too late" and we only have ten years left... again...

  • MatthewSlyfield||

    "What's less time than no time?"

    When your boss walks up to you and hands your already overloaded ass a new assignment and says "I need this yesterday."

  • Dillinger||

    let it go.

  • Sevo||

    "[...]Unfortunately, they have every incentive to conclude that they don't need to take any action! So do Nature; journals don't like being made to look foolish.""

    But this is science and scientists are above such concerns. Unless they aren't.

  • DiegoF||

    Flaws shmaws. It's not going to make a difference; it will be shouted from the rooftops no matter what happens. This is a movement that is allowing the movement on ocean plastics to be pushed by a "study" conducted entirely in the imagination of a toddler. This is literally true. The activist, "public-policy" philosophy of science is spreading and has totally infected some areas. This is certainly one; it puts even anti-tobacco to shame.

  • perlchpr||

    The kid was nine. I get your point, but "grade schooler" would be accurate where "toddler" is not, and equally disdainful.`

  • perlchpr||

    OK, to be fair, I'm only presuming you're talking about the plastic straw thing. Maybe there's some other, even more embarrassing incident I'm not aware of.

  • BYODB||

    'Suggests' tells me that they are almost certainly wrong. Now I shall read the article.


    ^_-

  • Dillinger||

    "warming" should tell you to not.

  • Remember to keep it all polit||

    Watt's Up With That has its own take by Nic Lewis.

  • Jerryskids||

    If future warming is at the low end, humanity has more time to adapt and to shift energy production away from the fossil fuels that are loading up the atmosphere with extra carbon dioxide. If it's at the high end, we'd need to speed up our efforts to adapt and shift energy production to low-carbon sources.

    Or come up with a way to extract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere in a manner cheaper and less disruptive to our economy than abandoning the fossil fuel platform. There's more than one way to skin a cat, but you're never going to fully explore the cat-skinning industry until you've developed a market for cat skins. Or skinned cats. I've never been sure why so many people are interested in skinning cats.

  • perlchpr||

    Or build a fucking space umbrella. All of the heat comes from the goddamned sun. Make the umbrella out of solar panels. Beam the power to Earth as microwaves.

  • Agammamon||

    OK, so let me get this straight. The traditional method of measuring ocean temperature is to stick a whole lot of thermometers in it, at a variety of depths, and directly measure the temperature.

    Now, there's a newfangled method to measure temperature that doesn't measure temperature but is dependent on a model of oxygen and CO2 release to proxy for temperature?

    Do I have that right?

    So, then we're using a model (of ocean temperature) to provide input for a model (of climate variability)?

    Oh, and its not an independent measurement of the ocean's heat content. Not yet anyway. You make this point later in the article yourself.

    If proven accurate is the relevant phrase. The study was peer-reviewed and published in one of the world's most prestigious scientific journals, but the developers of any new scientific technique recognize that it must undergo skeptical scrutiny before it can be accepted as valid by the wider scientific community.
  • BYODB||

    Yeah, pretty much. Both are terrible ways to measure temperature, but at least one of them is making an actual measurement instead of measuring other things that aren't temperature that they want to insert as a proxy for temperature measurement.


    The problem is, obviously, that oceans are massive and fluid which makes temperature measurement in any specific way virtually impossible. But hey, they don't let that slow their roll towards a preordained goal!

  • ||

    And note that, for the purposes of claiming that there's more heat going into the oceans than there seems to be, the Argo floats have produced an "imperfect ocean dataset and share additional uncertainties resulting from sparse coverage."

    But I think when Judith Curry pointed that out she was labelled a heretic, no?

  • Agammamon||

    Yeah, that's a third thing. Worse coverage than the thermometers are giving us - yet some people are expecting us to accept this new information *over* the longer-term and better-coverage direct measurement data?

  • ||

    What's great about this new technique is that it is an independent measure of the oceans' heat content.

    Independent from what? Thermometers? Climate? Reality as we know it?

  • Zeb||

    Independent of temperature measurements, I think. The idea is (it seems to me) to get an idea of the gross heat content that doesn't rely on the assumption that sparsely scattered thermometers give an accurate sense of how it's changing on the whole. I don't know if it's a good idea or not.

  • Echo Chamber||

    Isn't the science settled that thermometers are used to measure temperature?
    Bet let's introduce a new method to increase FUD and funding.

  • CatoTheChipper||

    The only quantity referred to in the article is "the amount of heat being absorbed by the oceans is more than 60 percent higher per year" than the IPCC estimated.

    In the past, scientists have normally measured heat using a device called a thermometer. Using data obtained from the thermometer, they could derive the change in thermal energy using well-established empirical data that quantifies the specific heat of the substances being measured in accordance with the laws of thermodynamics. It is a simple matter to evaluate the change in latent heat based upon change in temperature.

    However, the change in latent heat obtained from this method may not obtain desirable results. Modern climate science is dedicated to developing novel methods that create headline-grabbing results that re-energize the call for political action to combat catastrophic anthropogenic global warming. Climate science has a particular fondness for computer models that obtain favorable results from proxies for the actual phenomenon being quantified.

  • CatoTheChipper||

    The article makes no reference at all to how many degrees Celsius the temperature of the ocean has increased. That's because the number is so small that normal people would shrug their shoulders and say "so what?" The world's oceans are an enormous heat sink in fact, so climate science has to direct popular attention to the enormous quantities of heat that the oceans can absorb. Journalists can be made to understand that an exajoule is a whole lot of energy. The fact that it's distributed over 1.3 quadrillion cubic meters of ocean will lost on most journalists.

  • CatoTheChipper||

    Make that "zettajoule" above.

  • ||

    That's because the number is so small that normal people would shrug their shoulders and say "so what?"

    Here you *measure* something with 50% error and use it to report a value with roughly 10% error. That's some pretty fucking awesome math.

  • CatoTheChipper||

    From the press release issued regarding the Nature article:
    "Imagine if the ocean was only 30 feet deep," said Resplandy, who was a postdoctoral researcher at Scripps. "Our data show that it would have warmed by 6.5 degrees Celsius [11.7 degrees Fahrenheit] every decade since 1991. In comparison, the estimate of the last IPCC assessment report would correspond to a warming of only 4 degrees Celsius [7.2 degrees Fahrenheit] every decade."

    A bit sensational, no? The ocean isn't 30 ft deep. Ms. Resplandy's comment is utterly fatuous.

  • ||

    "If we pretend this impact is three orders of magnitude bigger than it is, it looks like a really big deal!"

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Imagine if you lived on Mercury. Then it would be really, really hot."

  • Zeb||

    I'm also going to imagine that the ocean is filled with Scotch Whisky instead of water.

  • buybuydandavis||

    "Resplandy and company had found a novel way to *measure the amount of heat* being absorbed by the world's oceans. Heretofore, climate researchers have sought to *deduce warming trends in the oceans using data collected from thermometers*, recently including a network of 3,200 Argo floats deployed throughout the world's waters. Resplandy's method takes advantage of the fact that as the oceans warm they release both oxygen and carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, a quantity they call "atmospheric potential oxygen," or APO."

    Bailey has it backwards.

    Thermometers measure heat.
    This new method *infers* heat, from *inferred* ocean released CO2 and O2.

    "What's great about this new technique is that it is an independent measure of the oceans' heat content."

    It's an independent *inference* of heat content that is *dependent* on a zillion and one assumptions, and presumably some other measurements.

  • ||

    "Galileo may have implied by dropping objects from the Tower of Pisa that objects of different mass fall at the same rate, but better proxies have inferred from known principles that they don't."

  • Zeb||

    Thermometers measure temperature.

  • Agammamon||

    Temperature and enthalpy get you heat content.

    So directly that its not wrong to say temperature = heat.

  • Zeb||

    I know it's a minor quibble, but one might as well get it right. You need more information than what a thermometer tells you to measure heat.

  • Zeb||

    It also annoys me when people say "power" when they mean "energy".

  • Greg F||

    Most people don't know what power and energy are.

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    Is the study's worst-case climate scenario wrong?

    Yes

  • Rossami||

    On the one hand, we have a set of direct physical measurements of temperature but the author says we have to "deduce" trends from that. On the other hand, we have what is at best an indirect proxy measure which blindly assumes that nothing else will influence APO during the study period and we're supposed to accept it as gospel.

  • CatoTheChipper||

    Yes, we're supposed to accept it as gospel because we're not peer-reviewed, credentialed climate scientists. We are supposed to effin' love science, but we are expected to accept any peer-reviewed pronouncement of a credentialed climate scientist without a hint of skepticism. Otherwise, we're denying science. Why do you deny science, Rossami?

    The APO method uses computer models designed by climate scientists. Real models run on real computers by real climate scientists who have credentials and peer-reviewed scientific articles in real science journals.

    You know you're not a climate scientist and your skepticism is not peer-reviewed by credentialed climate scientists. Instead, you're a climate denier.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    So, climate scientists can't record the temperature of the oceans accurately but they can determine the amount of CO2 and O2 released into the atmosphere by the oceans. Got it.

  • Colossal Douchebag||

    This is an ongoing scientific debate, and I will keep readers informed as it proceeds.

    This is an ongoing poo-flinging contest, and belongs in The Journal Of Irreproducible Results.

  • Inigo Montoya||

    I'm not a scientist, but I was under the impression that scientists of all types like to take direct measurements when they can as opposed to using secondary effects to infer things. Of course, it's not always practical to take a direct measurement, such as when things are extremely small or extremely far away.

    According to the article, there are already floating platforms taking direct water temperature readings scattered around the world's oceans. That seems a lot more direct for observing changes in water temperature than what this team did. It seems more akin to trying to measure the amount of rainfall by counting how many people outside you see with open umbrellas.

  • Zeb||

    The problem with the direct temperature measurements is that the ocean is really huge and the measurements are very local. So it's hard to say how complete a picture they give of changes.

    That said, I'm not at all convinced that this new method is any better.

  • Agammamon||

    The problem with direct o2/co2 outgassing measurements is that the ocean is really huge and the measurements are very local. So its hards to say how complete a picture that give of changes but since we're relying on a proxy for temperature *and* the measurements are significantly spottier than ocean surface measurements (remember, in addition to the dedicated scientific thermometers out there, ships of all descriptions are also constantly taking surface water temperatures as they travel their paths) and with a tiny, tiny, tiny, historical dataset compared to surface water temperatures.

    And that's not even getting into the subsurface temperature dataset collected over time.

  • CampingInYourPark||

    We will find ways to measure until the measurements produce the results that explain why the measurements of our original predictions were not what we predicted!
    /science!

  • DesigNate||

    That's old science. That's not how science do now yo.

  • Bubba Jones||

    "Many scientific studies can't be replicated. That's a problem."
    http://www.washingtonpost.com/.....-36-times/

  • ||

    The problem isn't (exactly) that scientific studies can't be replicated. Without risk, there can be no reward. The problem is that scientific and other lay reporters, eager to publish sensational findings lest they get scooped, publish garbage under the banner of fact or truth.

  • Echo Chamber||

    Plus nobody wants to spend months/years re-doing what has already been done to see if it was done right. And nobody wants to pony up new money to replicate old work. When it can't be replicated, is that because the first group messed up or did second group that failed to replicate mess up? It's all just click-bait anyway

  • Diane Reynolds (Paul.)||

    If it's science it's truth AND fact. And that's a fact. March for Science was a March for Facts.

  • cc2||

    Nic Lewis is awesome. He has an eye for detail and numbers that cannot be beat. If he finds an error in a paper, there is an error.

  • Muzzled Woodchipper||

    "but the developers of any new scientific technique recognize that it must undergo skeptical scrutiny before it can be accepted as valid by the wider scientific community."

    I wouldn't count on any sort of recognition nor skeptical scrutiny.

  • ecoquant||

    I preface by saying I've not read the preceding comments, and, so, I apologize if someone has already said what I'm going to say here. I have, of course, read the article above, which claims to represent Professor Lewis' critique of Resplandy, et al (2018) fairly, I have had a quick read of the critique, although have not, for reasons that will become evident, invested the time to reproduce the calculations, and I have had a careful read of Resplandy, Keeling, et al (2018), the research paper of NATURE which is the subject of Professor Lewis' critique.

    I also found the 1500 character constraint here inadequate to a proper response, so I have put this at my blog, at https://bit.ly/2RNip2d

    Here I necessarily need to be terse. (1) Lewis apparently doesn't do his linear least squares fit the same way as Resplandy, et al. (2) The REASON article above mischaracterizes Lewis on the "anthropogenic aerosol deposition" thing. (3) Lewis has gotten a technical matter wrong before, in a paper published in 2013, wherein he at least bends and twists Bayesian statistical practicet. The common element here is he is trying to claim as invalid a result he apparently doesn't like, in 2013 with climate sensitivity, and here with more ocean heat energy.

  • ecoquant||

    Oh, and regarding

    The beauty about predicting the apocalypse is that you can never be wrong. The "science as soothsayer" crowd has been running a pretty sweet racket since Malthus started the genre.

    There isn't an "apocalypse". What the science says is that climate conditions will steadily deteriorate -- or diverge, if you prefer the term -- from the climatic conditions within which civilization occurred, some 5000 years ago, until the point at which we zero all emissions from human sources. If we wait long enough to get to that point we'll also need to deploy some negative emissions technology, at ferocious expense, to counteract additional emissions induced by already present warming from natural sources. At that point we'll stop deterioration of climatic conditions. It won't get better. It will remain that way for thousands of years.

    So the game is to keep it from getting worse, not making it to back to how it was for roughly the last 5000 years.

    Because we are late, and the amount of heat in the oceans, it's likely that even if we zero, things are likely to remain uncomfortable -- storms, droughts, sea level rise, food scarcity -- for a considerable time.

    There's lots of evidence the ice sheets are cooked, even if the manifestation of that will take 200-300 years.

    If you're impatient, we could make it happen a lot faster!

    And that's 80 meters of SLR, not some puny 3 meters.

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