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Fact check: Warming varies across oceans and atmosphere, doesn’t contradict climate change – USA TODAY


The claim: Differences in ocean and the atmospheric warming are not explained by climate change science

According to NASA, 90% of global warming is occurring in Earth’s oceans. However, the average rate of warming over the whole ocean is lower than that of the atmosphere. 

One social media user claims this fact presents a major challenge to the idea that global warming is occurring at all.

“Do you want to know why global warming crap is wrong? The oceans are a heat sink. They determine the global temperature and that’s basic science,” reads the March 31 Facebook post. “If scientists were all correct then rises in ocean temperature and all atmospheric datasets would all be the same – but they are not.”

The post was shared almost 200 times and garnered hundreds more reactions in a few weeks, but it is wrong. 

Differences in rates of warming between oceans and the atmosphere are due to physics and were even predicted by climate scientist Svante Arrhenius in the late 1800s, according to researchers. While they warm at different rates, both the atmosphere and ocean are warming due to human activity.

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USA TODAY reached out to the Facebook user who shared the claim for comment.

Variations in ocean, atmospheric heating predicted by climate change science

Differences in warming between the ocean and atmosphere is to be expected in a global warming scenario, Kyle Armour, a climate scientist and associate professor at the University of Washington, told USA TODAY.

Surface ocean water and the surface atmosphere in contact with the ocean water are actually warming at similar rates, he said in an email.

“But the deep ocean is warming much more slowly than the surface ocean because it takes time for heat entering the ocean surface to mix downward and because the ocean’s immense heat capacity means that even a lot of heat absorption warms it very slowly,” Armour said.

Heat capacity refers to the amount of energy it requires to warm a substance to a given temperature. It takes more energy to heat water than air, Josh Willis, a NASA climate scientist, told USA TODAY.

Fact check:Short term global temperature fluctuations do not negate climate science, overall warming

This is also why surface air temperatures over land are warming more quickly than surface air temperatures over the ocean, he said. Air over the land is drier than air over the ocean, so it takes less energy to heat it up.

“There is no single value of temperature change expected for the oceans and atmosphere. Different regions and depths of the ocean warm at different rates and different regions and heights in the atmosphere warm at different rates,” Armour said. “Much of this was predicted as far back as 1896 … and has since been observed now that we have global observing networks in place.” 

Agreement among independent climate datasets

Though there is variability in surface air temperatures all over the Earth, multiple independent climate agencies average these data points together to track overall temperature change over time.

There is variability between these datasets, but this is to be expected given differences in instrumentation and data processing techniques, according to Gavin Schmidt, director of the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies.

“Each data set measures something a little different and has different uncertainties, so you don’t expect everything to line up perfectly. Nonetheless, all datasets showing basically the same pattern means our understanding of the overall changes is robust,” he told USA TODAY in an email.

Fact check: Misleading data used in claim alleging a global cooling trend

USA TODAY has previously debunked claims that climate change theory defies the laws of physics or overstates the role of CO2 in climate change.

Our rating: False

Based on our research, we rate FALSE the claim that differences in ocean and atmospheric warming are not explained by climate change science. Differences in warming all over the Earth are due to physics and the complexity of Earth’s climate systems, according to climate scientists. 

Our fact-check sources:

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