Heat Content and Temperature of the Ocean

  • Rui M. PonteEmail author


The global ocean is a vast body of water covering approximately two thirds of Earth’s surface and having an average depth around 4,000 m. Temperatures in the ocean can range from a balmy 30°C in the surface layers of the tropics to an icy cold −2°C in polar regions and at abyssal depths. Apart from the strong spatial variability, water temperatures at a place also change on all time scales, from hours to decades. Variability in surface water temperatures affects air-sea heat exchange and is an important factor determining the nature and strength of ocean–atmosphere coupling. Changes in ocean temperatures imply expansion or contraction of the water column and can thus have a major impact on sea level. And given the large heat capacity of seawater compared to that of air and the large mass of the oceans compared to that of the atmosphere, relatively small fluctuations in oceanic temperatures imply substantial changes in heat content, which are essential for properly accounting for the planet’s energy balance. As such, taking the temperature of the oceans and determining changes in its heat content is an essential diagnostic of the state of Earth’s climate and the overall health of our planet.


Heat Content Ocean Temperature Ocean Heat Content World Ocean Circulation Experiment Abyssal Depth 
These keywords were added by machine and not by the authors. This process is experimental and the keywords may be updated as the learning algorithm improves.


CTD (conductivity- temperature-depth)

Instrument used to obtain vertical profiles of salinity, temperature, and pressure in the ocean at resolutions up to 1 m.

Heat content

Amount of energy contained in thermal motion associated with any volume of matter, which is proportional to its temperature and specific heat.

Mixed layer

Near-surface layer where turbulent mixing primarily induced by atmospheric forcing produces homogeneous conditions of temperature, salinity, and other water properties.

Objective analysis

General mathematical procedure by which the value of a variable of interest at a given location and time is derived from similar observations at other times and/or places (also sometimes referred to as optimal interpolation).

Potential temperature

Temperature attained by a fluid parcel if measured at a given standard pressure (typically 1,000 hPa corresponding approximately to atmospheric pressure at the ocean surface).

Specific heat

Amount of energy per unit mass necessary to change the temperature of a given substance by 1°C, with typical values for seawater around 4,000 J/kg/°C.


Sensor that uses known thermal dependences of electrical resistance to determine temperature.


Region of enhanced vertical temperature gradients separating well-mixed layers near the surface from the layers with weak thermal stratification found in the deep ocean.

XBT (eXpendable BathyThermograph)

Instrument used to obtain essentially continuous recordings of temperature with depth, from the surface to about 700 m, which can be deployed from a ship underway and without having to be retrieved.



The author is indebted to J. Carton, G. Johnson, J. Kennedy, J. Lyman, M. Palmer, K. von Schuckmann, and S. Walker for help with the figures reproduced here. The support of NASA and the National Oceanographic Partnership Program is gratefully acknowledged.


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Books and Reviews

  1. Hall J, Harrison DE, Stammer D (eds) (2010) Proceedings of OceanObs’09: sustained ocean observations and information for society, vol 2, Venice, 21–25 Sep 2009. ESA Publication WPP-306Google Scholar
  2. Koblinsky C, Smith N (eds) (2001) Ocean observations for the 21st century. GODAE Office/BoM, MelbourneGoogle Scholar
  3. Peixoto JP, Oort AH (1992) Physics of climate. American Institute of Physics, New YorkGoogle Scholar
  4. Sparrow M, Chapman P, Gould J (2007) The world ocean circulation experiment (WOCE) hydrographic atlas, 4 volumes. International WOCE Project Office, SouthamptonGoogle Scholar
  5. Warren BA, Wunsch C (1981) Evolution of physical oceanography. MIT Press, CambridgeGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2013

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Atmospheric and Environmental Research, IncLexingtonUSA

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