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How to unscientifically hype insignificant noise in ocean “warming”

Time to panic:

Peter Hannam says: “The world’s oceans are heating at the rate of two trillion 100-watt light bulbs burning continuously…”

Maybe not?

 Jo says: “… that’s two trillion light bulbs, plus or minus 200 trillion…”

Conclusion: Random noise is coming to get you.

Scientists used to care about measurement error. Not so much any more. The ARGO buoys are marvelous high-tech robots, but each thermometer measures 200,000 cubic kilometers of ocean.  The thermometer in a buoy is accurate in a laboratory to 0.005C, but can they really detect global oceanic changes of five thousands of a degree?

Oh yessity say the scientists, because there are 3,000 thermometers. But, no no no thinks Jo. If they were all measuring the same swimming pool, having a lot of them would reduce the error, but each thermometer is measuring a different piece of ocean full of thermal noise. Some will argue that the the exact absolute temperature is not what matters, it’s the changing trend we need to measure. But these thermometers are not staying in one place measuring one tiny slice of the ocean, they roam randomly through water that varies from zero to 30C. Small eddies stir the water, and blobs of warmer and cooler tendrils circulate side by side. I hear there are internal thermal waves of heat sloshing through the ocean too. It’s a mess out there.

Imagine if our surface thermometers were roaming around the countryside. Look out — the Stevenson screens are on the move!  How good would you feel about “the hottest” ever record then?

Are the oceans really warming? We’ll know in another 30 years or so.

ARGO data, updated to Jan 2015 | Graph: David Evans

Peter Hannam of the Sydney Morning Herald at least writes up the temperature change in decimals, which the ABC did not. It’s a big step forward in mainstream journalism (how low are our expectations). Perhaps skeptical criticism is getting to him? But he is still a gullible repeater, naively accepting everything he hears — he didn’t ask how big the error bars are, and whether 0.005C is remotely meaningful. Nor did he point out that if the oceans can absorb all that heat energy, and only warm by such an infinitesimally small amount, isn’t that a good thing? You know, perhaps we’ve got quite some time before we have to hit the panic button?

Southern oceans play major role in absorbing world’s excess heat, study finds

Oceans store about 93 per cent of the extra heat taken up by Earth. Photo: Max Mason-Hubers

The world’s oceans are heating at the rate of two trillion 100-watt light bulbs burning continuously, providing a clear signal of global warming, according to new study assessing data from a global fleet of drifting floats.

The research, published on Tuesday in the journal Nature Climate Change, used data collected from the array of about 3500 Argo buoys from 2006-13 to show temperatures were warming at about 0.005 degrees a year down to a depth of 500 metres and 0.002 degrees between 500-2000 metres.

Oceans south of the 20-degree latitude accounted for two-thirds to 98 per cent of the heat gain during the period studied, with three giant gyres in the southern Pacific, Indian and Atlantic oceans largely responsible for drawing down the extra warmth.

“The global ocean heat content right now is the most reliable metric of that radiation imbalance” between the energy received from the sun and what is radiated back to space, said Susan Wijffels, an oceans expert at the CSIRO and one of the report’s authors.

The ABC don’t even mention how small the theoretical temperature change is. It’s another chance to run their favourite headline “2014 hottest on record”.  Reporter Bridget Brennan didn’t ask “how much warmer are the oceans”. She didn’t ask what the error margins are either. She mentioned “international data sets” but didn’t ask if the satellites (the two best data sets) agree that 2014 was the hottest ever (they don’t). She didn’t ask about “the Pause”. The pre-ARGO data has much higher, astronomic, uncertainties.

Researchers want more money. Abbott’s given the blame, but if the government’s bills are stalled, who is doing the stalling?

However, Dr Wijffels said Australia’s contribution is in doubt with about half of its Argo budget tied up with the Abbott government’s stalled higher education reform bills.  Those funds run out “in a few months”, she said.


Roemmich, D, Church, J., et al (2015) Unabated planetary warming and its ocean structure since 2006, Nature Climate Change,  doi:10.1038/nclimate2513

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