An Attempt to Estimate the Thermal Resistance of the Upper Ocean to Climatic Change

H. M. Van Den Dool Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093

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J. D. Horel Scripps Institution of Oceanography, University of California, San Diego, La Jolla, CA 92093

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Abstract

An attempt is made to estimate the thermal inertia of the upper ocean, relevant to climatic change. This is done by assuming that the annual variation in sea surface temperature (SST) can, to a first-order approximation, be described by a simple energy-balance equation. From the observed climatological annual variation in SST and in absorbed solar radiation we can estimate then a typical value of the heat capacity (C) of the active layer of the ocean. Also we can estimate how fast the SST is damped towards an equilibrium value (damping coefficient b). Within the same theoretical framework the decay time of SST anomalies allows us to estimate the seasonality of C/b.

The method is first tested on SST at six ocean weather ships and two coastal stations. The calculated depth of the active layer looks reasonable though somewhat small and it is encouraging that the seasonality in C/b, derived from daily SST data at one station, is similar to the observed seasonality in mixed layer depth. One of the problems seems to be that we need rather precise observations concerning solar radiation reaching the earth's surface. At many places such knowledge is not available. The spatial distribution of calculated active layer depth over the North Pacific is very similar to that of observed annual mean mixed layer depth but the mixed layer seems to be twice as deep as the active layer. Also the effective mixed layer defined and used by Manabe and Stouffer is substantially deeper than our calculated active layer.

The results are discussed in the context of both the surface energy balance and the vertically averaged energy balance. One of the interesting findings of this study is that the layer of the ocean involved in the annual cycle should be taken as 20–50 m rather than the more customary 60–80 m. Another conclusion is that the SST seems to damp (towards equilibrium) at least five times faster than the vertically integrated energy content of the climate system as a whole (including the ocean!).

Abstract

An attempt is made to estimate the thermal inertia of the upper ocean, relevant to climatic change. This is done by assuming that the annual variation in sea surface temperature (SST) can, to a first-order approximation, be described by a simple energy-balance equation. From the observed climatological annual variation in SST and in absorbed solar radiation we can estimate then a typical value of the heat capacity (C) of the active layer of the ocean. Also we can estimate how fast the SST is damped towards an equilibrium value (damping coefficient b). Within the same theoretical framework the decay time of SST anomalies allows us to estimate the seasonality of C/b.

The method is first tested on SST at six ocean weather ships and two coastal stations. The calculated depth of the active layer looks reasonable though somewhat small and it is encouraging that the seasonality in C/b, derived from daily SST data at one station, is similar to the observed seasonality in mixed layer depth. One of the problems seems to be that we need rather precise observations concerning solar radiation reaching the earth's surface. At many places such knowledge is not available. The spatial distribution of calculated active layer depth over the North Pacific is very similar to that of observed annual mean mixed layer depth but the mixed layer seems to be twice as deep as the active layer. Also the effective mixed layer defined and used by Manabe and Stouffer is substantially deeper than our calculated active layer.

The results are discussed in the context of both the surface energy balance and the vertically averaged energy balance. One of the interesting findings of this study is that the layer of the ocean involved in the annual cycle should be taken as 20–50 m rather than the more customary 60–80 m. Another conclusion is that the SST seems to damp (towards equilibrium) at least five times faster than the vertically integrated energy content of the climate system as a whole (including the ocean!).

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