>ENSO Dominates NODC Ocean Heat Content (0-700 Meters) Data

>UPDATE October 19, 2009

On October 15, 2009, the NODC corrected errors in the Ocean Heat Content data for the period of April through June 2009. This post has been updated with that corrected data.


The Royal Netherlands Meteorological Institute (KNMI) recently added the National Oceanographic Data Center (NODC) Ocean Heat Content (OHC) dataset to their Climate Explorer website, allowing users to download data based on user-defined global coordinates.

This OHC dataset was presented in the Levitus et al (2009) paper “Global ocean heat content(1955-2008) in light of recent instrumentation problems” [GEOPHYSICAL RESEARCH LETTERS, VOL. 36, L07608, doi:10.1029/2008GL037155, 2009]ftp://ftp.nodc.noaa.gov/pub/data.nodc/woa/PUBLICATIONS/grlheat08.pdf

There are differences in the presentation of the data. The NODC illustrates their OHC data for the 0 to 700 meter layer in 10^22 Joules, but KNMI presents the data on an area-averaged basis, in units of Gigajoules (10^9 Joules) per square meter. The data is the same; the units in which the data is presented are different. Also, the NODC provides the data on a quarterly basis; that is, the data is grouped in three-month averages. KNMI presents the NODC OHC data on a monthly basis by listing the quarterly data for each of the three months. This is why the OHC data appears to be squared off in the graphs of monthly raw data. This can be seen in Figure 1.

Figure 1

Figure 1 is a comparison graph of the Global OHC anomaly data (NODC), scaled NINO3.4 SST Anomalies (HADISST), and scaled Sato Index (GISS) data. This is the same format used in the graphs of the subsets illustrated in this post. The NINO3.4 SST anomalies are used to illustrate the timing of the El Nino-Southern Oscillation (ENSO) events. The Sato Index of Mean Optical Thickness at 500nm are provided to illustrate the timing of explosive volcanic eruptions. I’ve also smoothed the data for each OHC anomaly subset with a 13-month running-average filter, Figure 2.
Figure 2

NOTE: All OHC anomaly data presented are for the 0-700 meter layer.


The Tropical Pacific OHC anomaly data is illustrated in Figure 3. A number of things to note: The tropical Pacific OHC anomalies fall during El Nino events, but then recharge during the La Nina. For the most part, when the El Nino events occur at the same time as volcanic eruptions, the recharge does not return the OHC anomalies to the value they were at before the El Nino, but if the El Nino occurs without the influence of a volcanic eruption, the La Nina recharges the Tropical Pacific OHC anomalies to the pre-El Nino level. And it does it quickly. Note also how the 1972/73 El Nino event causes an upward step in the OHC anomalies of the Tropical Pacific. The OHC anomalies then decrease gradually, being influenced by the eruptions of El Chichon in 1982 and Mount Pinatubo in 1991, until they rise suddenly in 1995. In an earlier post, I illustrated how a shift in Tropical Pacific Total Cloud Amount may have caused the 1995 rise in Tropical Pacific OHC, providing fuel for the 1997/98 El Nino. Refer to my post Did A Decrease In Total Cloud Amount Fuel The 1997/98 El Nino?
Figure 3

However, the Tropical Indian Ocean OHC anomaly data reveals a sudden decline in 1995. Did a shift of warm water and/or cloud cover from the Tropical Indian Ocean to the Tropical Pacific also fuel the 1997/98 El Nino? I’ll investigate this in a future post. Note how the Tropical Indian Ocean OHC anomalies correlate with NINO3.4 SST anomalies over a large portion of the term of the data, but after 1995, the amplitude of the variations changes drastically.
Figure 4

In Figure 5, I’ve combined the OHC anomaly data for the Tropical Indian and Pacific Oceans. The OHC anomaly data for this subset follows the base of the NINO3.4 SST anomalies remarkably well. The OHC anomalies of the Tropical Indian and Pacific Oceans follow the rise in NINO3.4 SST anomalies after the 1972/73 and 1997/98 El Nino events. In other words, like the Tropical Pacific, there also appears to be a 25-year decay after the upward step from the 1972/73 El Nino (also influenced by the 1982 and 1991 volcanic eruptions), until the 1997/98 El Nino causes another upward step.
Figure 5

The step changes in the Tropical Atlantic OHC anomalies are obvious. The first occurred three years after the peak of 1972/73 El Nino, as the NINO3.4 SST anomalies rose from the secondary minimum of the two-year La Nina event. The same thing occurred with the next significant El Nino that was strong enough to generate a La Nina that lasted through two ENSO seasons, and that was the 1997/98 El Nino. Note also how the OHC anomalies of the Tropical Atlantic have been dropping quickly since 2005.
Figure 6


The North Pacific OHC anomalies are like no other OHC subset. In 1967, there was a sudden drop in the North Pacific OHC anomalies. Twenty plus years later North Pacific OHC anomalies rebounded. I’ll have to investigate this dataset further in a later post, to try to isolate where the majority of that variability takes place.
Figure 7

As illustrated in Figure 8, the South Pacific OHC anomalies show a sharp upward step change following the 1997/98 El Nino. Between 1971 and 1996, the OHC anomalies oscillate at or near 0 GJ/sq meter. The cause of the small rise between the 1960s and 1970 is elusive, but it’s not a significant rise compared to the upward step after the 1997/98 El Nino.

Figure 8

The South Indian Ocean OHC anomaly data, Figure 9, shows a decrease from 1955 until the late 1960s. Then the 1968/69/70 El Nino caused a minor rise in OHC anomalies. This was followed by a major upward step from the 1972/73 El Nino. OHC anomalies in the South Indian Ocean remained relatively flat until the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, when the OHC anomalies dipped. The upward step change after the 1997/98 El Nino is hard to miss. The decay until 2006 almost returned the South Indian Ocean OHC anomalies to the pre-1997/98 values, but the El Nino of 2006/07 bumped it back up again.
Figure 9

The North Atlantic OHC anomaly data, Figure 10, with its gradual climb, is clearly dominated by the Atlantic Multidecadal Oscillation. The impacts of ENSO events are visible, however. I have investigated the North Atlantic OHC data in a follow-up post “North Atlantic Ocean Heat Content (0-700 Meters) Is Governed By Natural Variables”.
Figure 10

There is a clear step change in the South Atlantic OHC anomaly data, Figure 11, following the 1972/73 El Nino. In this case, however, the response appears to be lagged an extra couple of years. The response is so long, it appears to result from the lesser El Nino of 1976/77. The South Atlantic OHC anomalies remain relatively flat until they appear to respond to the 1997/98 El Nino with an upward step that starts again many years after the peak of the El Nino. Why so long?
Figure 11

In the original version of this post, I compared the South Atlantic and Tropical Atlantic OHC data in Figure 12 to illustrate the relationship between the two datasets. I found it detracted from the post, so I’ve deleted it.

Figure 12


I’ve provided the Arctic and Southern Ocean OHC anomaly data in Figures 13 and 14, without commentary, for those who are interested in seeing what those curves look like.
Figure 13

Figure 14


It is clear that significant El Nino events can and do cause upward step changes in Ocean Heat Content. This indicates that ENSO events do more than simply release heat from the tropical Pacific into the atmosphere. Apparently, El Nino events also cause changes in atmospheric circulation in ways that impact Ocean Heat Content. If and when GCMs are able to recreate the variations in atmospheric circulation that cause these changes in Ocean Heat Content, GCMs may have value in predicting future climate variability. At present, they do not.


The NINO3.4 SST anomaly data is based on HADISST data available through the KNMI Climate Explorer:http://climexp.knmi.nl/selectfield_obs.cgi?someone@somewhere

Sato Index data is available through GISS:http://data.giss.nasa.gov/modelforce/strataer/



UPDATE October 8, 2009:

KNMI corrected a problem in its NODC Ocean Heat Content data on October 1, 2009. The error grew in effect with the distance from the equator. It changed the scale of the variations but did not drastically change the overall shape of the curves. The problem, therefore, had no real impact on this post, which illustrated the timing of ENSO-induced step changes in a number of ocean subsets. But to prevent a disagreement between the data presented in this post and future ones, I have redone the graphs in the following.

In the original version of the post, I had also provided links to graphs of unsmoothed versions of Figures 3 through 14. I have not provided them in this revision.

This post also updates the data through June 2009.


About Bob Tisdale

Research interest: the long-term aftereffects of El Niño and La Nina events on global sea surface temperature and ocean heat content. Author of the ebook Who Turned on the Heat? and regular contributor at WattsUpWithThat.
This entry was posted in El Nino-La Nina Processes, Ocean Heat Content Problems, Ocean Processes, OHC Update. Bookmark the permalink.

15 Responses to >ENSO Dominates NODC Ocean Heat Content (0-700 Meters) Data

  1. Bill Illis says:

    >Great material again Bob.One question – How do we convert between GJ/m2 and GJ global ocean heat content in the upper 0-700M.

  2. Bob Tisdale says:

    >Bill: I mentioned the conversion in a later post.http://bobtisdale.blogspot.com/2009/10/nodc-corrections-to-ocean-heat-content.html####As noted above, the NODC presents its data in terms of 10^22 Joules, while KNMI provides the OHC data in GJ/m^2. The global ocean surface area listed in Wikipedia is 361 million sq km. If that surface area is used as a multiplier for the KNMI data, it proves to be too high, but as illustrated in Figure 3, 350 million sq km for the global ocean surface area provides a reasonable match.http://i35.tinypic.com/24dms89.png####Lots of zeroes to carry.

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