Nav: Home

1,800 years of global ocean cooling halted by global warming

August 17, 2015

Prior to the advent of human-caused global warming in the 19th century, the surface layer of Earth's oceans had undergone 1,800 years of a steady cooling trend, according to a new study. During the latter half of this cooling period, the trend was most likely driven by large and frequent volcanic eruptions.

An international team of researchers reported these findings in the August 17, 2015 issue of the journal Nature Geoscience. The study also indicates that the coolest temperatures occurred during the Little Ice Age--a period that spanned the 16th through 18th centuries and was known for cooler average temperatures over land.

The concurrence of cooling events on both land and sea suggests that a global cooling phenomenon was erased by subsequent human-caused global warming.

"Today, the Earth is warming about 20 times faster than it cooled during the past 1,800 years," said Michael Evans, second author of the study and an associate professor in the University of Maryland's Department of Geology and Earth System Science Interdisciplinary Center (ESSIC). "This study truly highlights the profound effects we are having on our climate today."

Compared to the atmosphere, the oceans can absorb much more heat and trap it for longer periods of time. Thus the ocean can buffer short-term changes in global temperature. But when events such as volcanic eruptions cluster together in a relatively short period of time, the temperature changes can become prolonged.

"Volcanic eruptions have a short-term cooling effect on the atmosphere, but our results showed that when volcanic eruptions occurred more frequently, there was long-term ocean cooling," said lead author Helen McGregor, an Australian Research Council (ARC) Future Fellow at the University of Wollongong in Australia. "With this research, we now have new insight into the century-scale global sea-surface temperature variations that came before man-made greenhouse gas forcing."

The scientists are the first to combine 57 previously published marine surface temperature reconstructions that cover all of the world's oceans, from near-polar to tropical regions. The team compiled the data within 200-year brackets to observe long-term trends, and then compared the findings to land-based reconstructions, which revealed similar cooling trends.

"No matter how we divided the data set, the cooling trend stands out as a robust signal," McGregor said.

To investigate the cause of the cooling trend, the researchers turned to climate models. They examined how sea-surface temperatures reacted to various "forcing" factors, such as changes in solar output, Earth's orbit, land use, volcanic activity and greenhouse gases. Only volcanic events resulted in a cooling trend that matched the team's real-world observations.

Understanding how forcing factors changed ocean temperatures in the past can open a window into future climate change.

"Model simulations by others have shown us that the oceans can impart a substantial delay in the warming of the surface climate," said Evans, who is also the lead of the Ocean2k working group of the Past Global Changes (PAGES) program. "With much of the heat from global warming entering our oceans, recent ocean surface warming may foreshadow additional future warming, in the same way ocean cooling appeared as a long-term response to large and frequent volcanic events in recent centuries."

"We are still learning how the oceans mediate climate variations," Evans added. "Further work combining both observations and simulations of ocean climate will refine our understanding of the ocean's role in climate change."
-end-
This research was funded by the National Science Foundation, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration and the Swiss National Science Foundation via the PAGES (Past Global Changes) Program, as well as 22 additional grants and fellowships awarded to individual researchers and institutions. The content of this article does not necessarily reflect the views of these organizations.

The research paper, "Robust global ocean cooling trend for the pre-industrial Common Era," Helen McGregor, Michael Evans, et al., was published August 17, 2015 in the journal Nature Geoscience.

Supplemental information about the study, including FAQs, data, figures, and photos are available on the PAGES website: http://www.pages-igbp.org/ini/wg/ocean2k/faq-pre

Media Relations Contact: Matthew Wright, 301-405-9267, mewright@umd.edu

University of Maryland
College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences
2300 Symons Hall
College Park, MD 20742
http://www.cmns.umd.edu
@UMDscience

About the College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences

The College of Computer, Mathematical, and Natural Sciences at the University of Maryland educates more than 7,000 future scientific leaders in its undergraduate and graduate programs each year. The college's 10 departments and more than a dozen interdisciplinary research centers foster scientific discovery with annual sponsored research funding exceeding $150 million.

University of Maryland

Related Climate Change Articles:

The black forest and climate change
Silver and Douglas firs could replace Norway spruce in the long run due to their greater resistance to droughts.
For some US counties, climate change will be particularly costly
A highly granular assessment of the impacts of climate change on the US economy suggests that each 1°Celsius increase in temperature will cost 1.2 percent of the country's gross domestic product, on average.
Climate change label leads to climate science acceptance
A new Cornell University study finds that labels matter when it comes to acceptance of climate science.
Was that climate change?
A new four-step 'framework' aims to test the contribution of climate change to record-setting extreme weather events.
It's more than just climate change
Accurately modeling climate change and interactive human factors -- including inequality, consumption, and population -- is essential for the effective science-based policies and measures needed to benefit and sustain current and future generations.
More Climate Change News and Climate Change Current Events

Best Science Podcasts 2019

We have hand picked the best science podcasts for 2019. Sit back and enjoy new science podcasts updated daily from your favorite science news services and scientists.
Now Playing: TED Radio Hour

Teaching For Better Humans
More than test scores or good grades — what do kids need to prepare them for the future? This hour, guest host Manoush Zomorodi and TED speakers explore how to help children grow into better humans, in and out of the classroom. Guests include educators Olympia Della Flora and Liz Kleinrock, psychologist Thomas Curran, and writer Jacqueline Woodson.
Now Playing: Science for the People

#535 Superior
Apologies for the delay getting this week's episode out! A technical glitch slowed us down, but all is once again well. This week, we look at the often troubling intertwining of science and race: its long history, its ability to persist even during periods of disrepute, and the current forms it takes as it resurfaces, leveraging the internet and nationalism to buoy itself. We speak with Angela Saini, independent journalist and author of the new book "Superior: The Return of Race Science", about where race science went and how it's coming back.