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Thermal Inertia of the Oceans 


Dr. Michael Tuckson


Thermal inertia in Earth systems can be said to be the tendency for heat to transfer more slowly to some material bodies than others, creating an apparent lag between temperature change in one and the other. Although we often accuse the oceans of lagging in this respect, we could well accuse the atmosphere of being speedy. Inertia is a relative term. The atmosphere heats more quickly than the oceans and ice bodies. Perhaps obviously, as the heat comes almost entirely from above, the near surface of the oceans heats more quickly than the depths, so its temperature is usually included with that of the atmosphere to get a near surface temperature. The average atmospheric/surface ocean temperature has risen 0.8 degrees Celsius, but the ocean alone down to about 700 metres has risen only 0.45 degrees. In the case of ice bodies, heat transfer can be measured by the volume melted, where that is known. A small amount of heat is transferred daily into and out of the solid Earth and some is transferred daily and over longer time periods into and out of land surface water bodies. The interesting question is, why does the ocean appear lethargic compared with the atmosphere, and what does this imply for the Earth’s climate?  


Specific Heat Capacity and Heat Capacity or Thermal Mass 


Specific heat capacity of materials begins to explain the slow response of the oceans. Specific heat capacity is the heat (energy) that must be transferred to a material or substance for one gram to experience a one degree rise in temperature. Water is listed by two organizations on the net as having a specific heat capacity about 4 times that of air and about twice that of ice. (The value for most mineral matter is said to be a little less than air, and that of wood is about twice that of air). Substances with smaller specific heat warm faster as it takes less heat energy to warm them any specific number of degrees.


If we multiply the specific heat capacity of the substance by the mass of the body or system we obtain the body’s heat capacity or thermal mass per unit rise in temperature. In other words if the temperature, say in the oceans, rises only a little, despite the massive heat transfer, it has a relatively high heat capacity, i.e. compared with the atmosphere. However, we might ask how useful the concept of heat capacity as applied to the ocean mass really is.


How is Heat Transferred to and from the Oceans? 


Heat is transferred to and into, through and out of the ocean by several processes known as radiation, absorption and re-radiation, evaporation, rainfall and other precipitation, conduction, convection and advection. To explain why the ocean and land elements heat up at all must also involve the transparency of the atmosphere. While sunlight penetrates a few metres into water, the water also re-radiates infrared waves back into the atmosphere. The fluidity and other factors means that the surface heat is gradually transferred through the top few tens and to a less extent a few hundred metres of the ocean down to about 700 m where the temperature declines very slowly with increased depth.  The temperature of the oceans below about 1000 metres is about 4 degrees. The latitudinal temperature variation in the sun’s radiation results in the transfer of a small flow to the very deep oceans at 3500 metres or more and horizontal flow through and between the oceans.


Thermal conductivity of water transfers some heat from the near surface to greater depth. Convection is largely vertical turnover, while advection is horizontal flow, but these are linked in cells. As almost all heat in the oceans comes from above, because hot parts of fluids tend to rise with convection, this mode does not transfer heat nearly as much as in the highly transparent atmosphere. Most heat is transferred to deeper levels up to a few hundred metres mainly by wind induced turbulence and currents. The main convection currents result from the sinking of cold water in polar regions. It takes a rather uncertain time amounting to millennia for heat to be distributed to its maximum extent, that is until it reaches an equilibrium, giving up as much heat as it receives. If the ocean were not highly fluid it would not retain as much heat and the atmosphere would heat up more.

The sediments beneath the ocean are hardly affected as the oceans have a large depth, low deep convection rate and relatively low transparency.


Surface water bodies on land such as lakes and rivers also warm up and more quickly than the oceans as there is less depth to warm. The solid earth, notably the soil layer, such of it that remains, and some rock down to a couple of metres, including the water contained, also heats a little, but because of low overall fluidity of the minerals and low thermal conductivity, the heat absorbed is even less.  


Total Heat Absorbed 


Murphy (2009) has assessed the top heat absorbed by the oceans, land and atmosphere from 1950 to 2003 (See diagram below). He shows, notably, that the heat is rising since1999 and shows no obvious oscillations from 1999 -2003. From 2004 to 2009 the heat retained has been flatter as with atmospheric heat according to subsequent research. As has been covered in other pages this may be due to the flattening of the methane curve, water vapour reduction or a cloud effect. Further research is needed to resolve the cause. The diagram refers to “total Earth heat content” whereas it should obviously refer to surface or near surface heat content. A small amount of the Earth’s heat does actually come from the solid earth, ultimately from radioactive elements in the core.


Total heat content of oceans, and land and atmosphere

(Diagram from Skeptical Science website)


Heat Capacity or Convection


Although many online writers note the difference in specific heat and heat capacity between the atmosphere and ocean as explaining much of inertia of the oceans, it is the relatively slow convection due to the heating from above that is more important. Heat absorption by the solid earth is relatively trivial due to the absence of convection. The temperature from about 1000 metres depth to the bottom of the ocean is about 4 degrees Celsius as surface heat is transferred down very lightly. This means that the decadal and century long inertia is not equivalent to the daily and seasonal damping effect of the oceans as is often claimed. Sea breezes and a pleasant coastal climate have little to do with climatic inertia. These effects are due to specific heat as well as the greater transparency and thermal conductivity of water compared with land as well as wave based turbulence. The longer climatic damping effect has more to do with weak convection as well as wave turbulence. The emphasis on specific heat and heat capacity appears to come from the assumption that the physics of small bodies can be applied to deep global ones. In our "kitchen" experience we heat from below.


Thermal Mass of Buildings


The thermal mass or heat capacity of the land, but not the ocean, can be compared with a building with high thermal mass through having thick walls. When the temperature is hot in the early afternoon it absorbs heat which it gives off when the temperature cools outside at night time. Thus, although the daily temperature variation is high, the brick or concrete mass dampens the temperature variation inside the building making it a more pleasant environment. This is interesting as it is a key method of reducing the need for electricity-driven cooling or heating in buildings


Boon or Baffling, then Danger? 


This long term ocean “inertia” means that not only is atmospheric warming slower than if the oceans were shallow, allowing time for humans to mitigate warming, but dissipation of heat to the atmosphere is taking place and will take place especially if we manage to slow and reverse the atmospheric rise. If by some major socio-technological innovation such as reflective roofs, roads and vegetation or natural luck such as continued cooling of the sun, we can slow and reverse the atmospheric warming, the ocean will continue to contribute massive heat to the atmosphere for decades if not centuries hence, moderating the cooling. So our reversal process will have to continue for that time. If we markedly reduce our net greenhouse emissions by say 2020 and grow trees to begin absorbing the carbon dioxide, the ocean will emit more heat, forcing us to try harder to artificially reduce the heat in the atmosphere. If we are to lower the sea level by the metres it may have already risen (virtually or actually risen) then we will have to cool the atmosphere sufficiently to induce enough snow fall in the Artic and high mountains, a long term process.


All in all this is unfortunate as the initial delay creates relative complacency and the continued warming will be a long term headache. I doubt if it is true as often claimed that the delay is advantageous that allows us to prepare our mitigation plans. It is fooling us as much as helping us.  


Deep Currents Could Slow 


Deep ocean circulation is largely driven by the sinking of cold saline water in the   North Atlantic and around Antarctica. This sinking results both in surface currents moving polewards to replace the sinking water and in deep ocean currents that rise to the surface in the North Pacific and northern Indian oceans. Heat coming from Earth’s core makes some contribution at the oceanic ridges but this hardly affects circulation.


Because the ocean is saline, if the area that sinks in the cold extremities of the oceans experiences decreasing salinity due to the addition of fresh water from increased rainfall or melting ice, its density would fall and the tendency to sink and form surface warm currents and deep currents would decline. This risk is one of the feedbacks that could affect future ocean and atmospheric climate adversely.


Copyright  © 2009 Michael Tuckson. All Rights Reserved 


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 Michael Tuckson

The website author and publisher, December 2009.


Easy Summary


We must try to understand up-to-date climate science coming out over the last few years that warns of possible disaster. Ice shelves and sheets are melting much faster than before. Global temperatures are rising, with oscillations due to ocean oscillations. Natural causes are minor compared with pollution. This understanding must be spread by advanced adult education, especially among the powerful. As many readers as possible must spread understanding.


Denier leaders are funded by the fossil fuel, tobacco and similar corporations and/or are ideologues. Their arguments are always against, not considering pro and con, as with real science. They rarely call for better understanding, just attempt to confuse. None are climate scientists. Their motivation is salary and weak government, not salary and discovery. Either they do not care about their descendants or they do not understand the probable future.


We must put more emphasis on the short-term greenhouse influences such as methane. Carbon dixide must be captured from the atmosphere. Also we must lead with behaviour change before appropriate technology spreads. Birth control is important in some regions. Job-time sharing and retraining can reduce any unemployment resulting from mitigation measures. Mitigation must be coordinated globally by government and citizens in modern sectors. City pairing could be useful.