Guest Post by Willis Eschenbach
I previously discussed the question of error bars in oceanic heat content measurements in “Decimals of Precision“. There’s a new study of changes in oceanic heat content, by Levitus et al., called “World Ocean Heat Content And Thermosteric Sea Level Change (0-2000), 1955-2010” (paywalled here). [UPDATE: Available here, h/t Leif Svalgaard] It’s highlighted over at Roger Pielke Senior’s excellent blog , where he shows this graph of the results:
Now, there’s some oddities in this graph. For one, the data starts at year 1957.5, presumably because each year’s value is actually a centered five-year average … which makes me nervous already, very nervous. Why not show the actual annual data? What are the averages hiding?
But what was of most interest to me are the error bars. To get the heat content figures, they are actually measuring the ocean temperature. Then they are converting that change in temperature into a change in heat content. So to understand the underlying measurements, I’ve converted the graph of the 0-2000 metre ocean heat content shown in Figure 1 back into units of temperature. Figure 2 shows that result.
Figure 2. Graph of ocean heat anomaly 0.-2000 metres from Figure 1, with the units converted to degrees Celsius. Note that the total change over the entire period is 0.09°C, which agrees with the total change reported in their paper.
Here’s the problem I have with this graph. It claims that we know the temperature of the top two kilometres (1.2 miles) of the ocean in 1955-60 with an error of plus or minus one and a half hundredths of a degree C …
It also claims that we currently know the temperature of the top 2 kilometers of the global ocean, which is some 673,423,330,000,000,000 tonnes (673 quadrillion tonnes) of water, with an error of plus or minus two thousandths of a degree C …
I’m sorry, but I’m not buying that. I don’t know how they are calculating their error bars, but that is just not possible. Ask any industrial process engineer. If you want to measure something as small as an Olympic-size swimming pool full of water to the nearest two thousandths of a degree C, you need a fistful of thermometers, one or two would be wildly inadequate for the job. And the top two kilometres of the global ocean is unimaginably huge, with as much volume as 260,700,000,000,000 Olympic-size swimming pools …
So I don’t know where they got their error numbers … but I’m going on record to say that they have greatly underestimated the errors in their calculations.
PS—One final oddity. If the ocean heating is driven by increasing CO2 and increasing surface temperatures as the authors claim, why didn’t the oceans warm in the slightest from about 1978 to 1990, while CO2 was rising and the surface temperature was increasing?
PPS—Bonus question. Suppose we have an Olympic-sized swimming pool, and one perfectly accurate thermometer mounted in one location in the pool. Suppose we take one measurement per day. How long will we have to take daily measurements before we know the temperature of the entire pool full of water to the nearest two thousandths of a degree C?