National Public Radio
March 19, 2008
The Mystery of Global Warming’s Missing Heat
Some 3,000 scientific robots that are plying the ocean have sent home a puzzling message. These diving instruments suggest that the oceans have not warmed up at all over the past four or five years. That could mean global warming has taken a breather. Or it could mean scientists aren’t quite understanding what their robots are telling them.
This is puzzling in part because here on the surface of the Earth, the years since 2003 have been some of the hottest on record. But Josh Willis at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory says the oceans are what really matter when it comes to global warming.
In fact, 80 percent to 90 percent of global warming involves heating up ocean waters. They hold much more heat than the atmosphere can. So Willis has been studying the ocean with a fleet of robotic instruments called the Argo system. The buoys can dive 3,000 feet down and measure ocean temperature. Since the system was fully deployed in 2003, it has recorded no warming of the global oceans.
“There has been a very slight cooling, but not anything really significant,” Willis says. So the buildup of heat on Earth may be on a brief hiatus. “Global warming doesn’t mean every year will be warmer than the last. And it may be that we are in a period of less rapid warming.”
In recent years, heat has actually been flowing out of the ocean and into the air. This is a feature of the weather phenomenon known as El Nino. So it is indeed possible the air has warmed but the ocean has not. But it’s also possible that something more mysterious is going on.
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