Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
It has been known for some time that the “Pacific Warm Pool”, the area just northeast of Australia, has a maximum temperature. It never gets much warmer than around 30 – 31°C. This has been borne out by the Argo floats. I discussed this in passing in “Jason and the Argo Notes“, and “Argo Notes Part 2“. I’d like to expand on this a bit. Let me be clear that I am by no means the originator of the claim that there is a thermostat regulating the maximum ocean temperature. See among many others the Central Equatorial Pacific Experiment. I am merely looking at the Argo data with this thermostat in mind.
First, Figure 1 shows the distribution of all of the ~ 700,000 surface temperature measurements taken by Argo floats to date.
The number of temperature records peaks around 29°C, and drops quickly for temperatures above 30°C. This clearly establishes the existence of the mechanism limiting the oceanic temperatures.
What else can the Argo data tell us about this phenomenon? Quite a bit, as it turns out.
First, a look at the year by year evolution of the limit, and how it affects the temperatures at different latitudes.
A couple points of interest. First, the cap clearly affects only the warm parts of the year. Close to the equator, that is most of the year. The further from the equator, the less of the annual cycle is affected.
Second, the majority of the breakthroughs through the ~30° ceiling that do occur are from areas further from the equator, and are short-lived. By and large, nobody exceeds the speed limit, especially those along the equator.
Figure 3 is a closeup of the years since 2005. I chose this starting point because prior to that the numbers are still changing due to limited coverage. To show how the mechanism is cropping the tops of the warmer parts of the year, I have added a Gaussian average (129 point width) in dark gray for each two-degree latitudinal band from 0°-2°N up to 10°-12°N.
Figure 3. Annual temperature variations measured by all northern hemisphere argo floats that exceeded 30°C. Dark lines have been added to highlight the average annual swings of the data by latitude band. Click on image for full-sized graphic.
As you can see, the warm parts of the yearly cycle have their high points cropped off flat, with the amount cropped increasing with increasing average temperatures.
Finally, here is the corresponding plot for the southern hemisphere:
Note that there is less of the southern ocean that reaches 30°C, and it is restricted to areas closer to the equator.
Next, where are these areas that are affected by the temperature cap? I had always thought from the descriptions I’d read that the limitation on ocean temperature was only visible in the “Pacific Warm Pool” to the northeast of Australia. Figure 5 shows the areas which have at some point been over 30°C.
Clearly this mechanism operates in a wider variety of oceans and seas than I had realized, not just in the Pacific Warm Pool.
Finally, here is another way to consider the effect of the temperature maximum. Here are the average annual temperature changes by latitude band. I have chosen to look at the northern hemisphere area from 160 to 180 East and from the Equator to 45°N (upper right of Figure 5, outlined in cyan), as it has areas that do and do not reach the ~ 30° maximum.
Figure 6. Average annual temperature swings by latitude band. Two years (the average year , shown twice) are shown for clarity.
Note that at say 40°N, we see the kind of peaked summer high temperatures that we would expect from a T^4 radiation loss plus a T^2 or more evaporative loss. It’s hard to get something warm, and when the heat is turned down it cools off fast. This is why the summer high temperature comes to a point, while the winter low is rounded.
But as the temperature starts to rise towards the ocean maximum, you can see how that sharp peak visible at 40°N starts first to round over, then to flatten out at the top. Curiously, the effect is visible even when the temperatures are well below the maximum ocean temperature.
Speculations on the mechanism
I want to highlight something very important that is often overlooked in discussions of this thermostatic mechanism. It is regulated by temperature, and not by forcing. It is insensitive to excess incoming radiation, whether from CO2 or from the sun. During the part of the year when the incoming radiation would be enough to increase the temperature over ~ 30°, the temperature simply stops rising at 30°. It is no longer a function of the forcing.
This is very important because of the oft-repeated AGW claim that surface temperature is a linear function of forcing, and that when forcing increases (say from CO2) the temperature also has to increase. The ocean proves that this is not true. There is a hard limit on ocean temperature that just doesn’t get exceeded no matter how much the sun shines.
As to the mechanism, to me that is a simple question of the crossing lines. As temperature rises, clouds and thunderstorms increase. This cuts down the incoming energy, as well as cooling the surface in a variety of ways. Next, this same process moves an increasing amount of excess energy polewards. In addition, as temperature rises, parasitic losses (latent and sensible energy transfers from the surface to the atmosphere) also go up.
So … as the amount of total radiation (solar + greenhouse) that is warming any location rises, more and more of the incoming solar radiation is reflected, there are more and more parasitic losses, more cold water and air move from aloft to the surface as cold wind and rain, and a greater and greater percentage of the incoming energy is simply exported out of the area. At some point, those curves have to cross. At some point, losses have to match gains.
When they do cross, all extra incoming energy above that point is simply transferred to the upper atmosphere and thence to the poles. About 30°C is where the curves cross, it is as hot as this particular natural system can get, given the physics of wind, water, and wave.
I make no overarching claims for this mechanism. It is just one more part of the many interlocking threshold-based thermostatic mechanisms that operate at all temporal and spatial scales, from minutes to millennia and kilometres to planet-wide. The mechanisms include things like the decadal oscillations (PDO, AMO, etc), the several-year Nino/Nina swings, the seasonally opposing effects of clouds (warming the winters and cooling the summers), and the hourly changes in clouds and thunderstorms.
All of these work together to maintain the earth within a fairly narrow temperature band, with a temperature drift on the order of no more than ± 0.2% per century. It is the stability of the earth’s climate system which is impressive, not the slight rise over the last century. Until we understand the reasons for the amazing planetary temperature stability, we have no hope of understanding the slight variations in that stability.
My regards to you all,
UPDATE (by Anthony):
Dr. Roger Pielke Sr. has some praise for this essay here: