Dr Michael Byrne, a lecturer in earth surface processes at the college of St Andrews and a Marie Skłodowska-Curie research other in the Atmospheric, Oceanic and Planetary Physics group at the college of Oxford


Last year, worldwide temperatures were 0.95C warmer 보다 the 20th century average. Human task is responsible for about 100% the this warming.

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Delving a small deeper into these numbers shows that the earth land locations were 1.43C warmer 보다 average, if the oceans were 0.77C warmer. This is proof of how the world continents have actually warmed an ext rapidly than its oceans over recent decades.

This contrast in between land and also ocean temperature readjust will strongly form the worldwide pattern of future warming and also has essential implications because that humans. Us are, after ~ all, a varieties that lot prefers come live ~ above land.

But what drives this warming contrast? the a deceptively basic question, yet one with a much-misunderstood answer. In this guest post, I synopsis a robust, quantitative theory for the land-ocean warming comparison that has only been developed in recent years.

Heat capacity

Simple physics suggests that as soon as you put more heat right into the climate system, land have to warm much more quickly 보다 oceans. This is because land has actually a smaller “heat capacity” than water, which way it requirements less warmth to advanced its temperature.

The chart below shows exactly how the earth’s land surface ar (yellow line) has actually warmed much more rapidly 보다 the s (dark blue) end the observational record.

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Amplified warming over land obvious in surface ar temperature records from NOAA. Graph shows yearly average temperatures because that land (yellow line), s (dark blue) and land and ocean linked (light blue). All numbers relative to 1901-2000. Data indigenous NOAA; graph by Carbon brief using Highcharts.

This impact can additionally be viewed in various parts of the seasonal climate system. For example, as the sunlight moves phibìc of the equator throughout the north hemisphere spring, its power rapidly heats India relative to bordering oceans. This comparison in heater plays a crucial role in the reversal that winds the drives the southern Asia monsoon.

Land’s tiny heat capacity also helps to explain why some continental regions, such together Russia and the main US, deserve to get very hot in summer yet bitterly cold in winter. This is recognized as “continentality”.

Given its central role in the seasonal land-ocean warming contrast, warmth capacity is the natural beginning point once attempting to explain why continent warm an ext than seas under climate change. Yet there is a problem with this explanation.

Warming contrast

In a landmark 1991 paper, meteorologist Syukuro Manabe and his partner used very early climate model to to compare the transient response of the climate mechanism to gradual increases in CO2 to the permanent equilibrium response.

In various other words, they to be comparing the climate while CO2 was enhancing with the climate once CO2 had actually stopped rising and the climate had ultimately stabilised at its new, warmer state.

If the difference in warm capacities in between land and also oceans to be the decisive factor managing the warming contrast, us would suppose the comparison to disappear in ~ equilibrium when the oceans have had sufficient time to warm up.

But this is not what Manabe found. Instead, he found that the proportion of soil to ocean warming (now recognized as the “amplification factor”) was comparable in both the transient and equilibrium experiments.

This was proof that the land-ocean warming contrast – highlighted in the map below of projected warming because that the end of this century – is a fundamental response come climate adjust that is not regulated by heat capacity. If warmth capacity can not explain amplified land warming in a transforming climate, what can?


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Climate design projection that the change in near-surface temperature by the finish of the 21st century (2080-2100) loved one to the historical period (1980-2000). Data indigenous the GFDL-CM4 version under the fossil-fueled, high emissions SSP58.5 scenario; chart by M Byrne.


Beyond heat capacity

The an initial explanation, at first put front by Manabe, invokes the surface energy balance. This explains the exchange the energy in between the earth’s surface and the atmosphere above it.

When atmospheric CO2 concentration increase, radiation right into Earth’s surface rises causing temperatures to rise. This is since a bigger amount the the heat radiated through the Earth’s surface ar is gift trapped by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere.

But the level of this CO2-induced surface warming depends on how much is balanced by localised factors that reason cooling – namely, cooling brought about by evaporation and cooling as result of the exchange of dry heat between the land surface and the air above it. (The atmospheric warming resulted in by the latter also tends come inhibit cloud development and, thus, can cause further dry of the soil surface.)

Oceans – i beg your pardon have unlimited water to evaporate – can effectively cool us in a warming climate by evaporating much more and an ext water with only a small temperature increase. Continents, top top the various other hand, generally have limited moisture ease of access and so evaporation is constrained.

This method that, over continents, more of the extra radiation going into the surface in a warming climate needs to it is in dissipated through the exchange of dried heat and longwave radiative cooling, rather than evapotranspiration. This suggests a larger increase in surface ar temperature contrasted to the openly evaporating oceans.

This “surface energy balance” theory for the land-ocean warming comparison has likewise been placed forward in much more recent studies.

This explanation for magnified continental warming is intuitive and hints in ~ a crucial role for land “dryness” in determining the temperature change. Yet it demands to be supported by difficult numbers.

An problem with the surface energy balance concept is that it depends on nature of the land surface ar – which are varied, complicated and notoriously daunting to simulate – in order to be accurately stood for in climate models. In particular, quantifying how evapotranspiration will certainly respond to a an altering climate – the crucial ingredient that the surface energy balance theory – requires expertise of regional soil moisture and also vegetation and also how these properties themselves readjust with climate. A challenging task.

Moreover, components in the overlying environment are also important: just how will rainfall and winds change? The myriad processes affecting land surface energy balance mean that making use of this structure as a basis for a quantitative concept for the land-ocean warming contrast is challenging. Back the perspective is conceptually useful, it offers an incomplete expertise of the physics steering the warming contrast.

A new idea

Rather than surface power balance, atmospheric dynamics – the motion of the atmosphere and also its thermodynamic state – underpin a new understanding of the land-ocean warming contrast that has developed over the critical decade.

In a 2008 paper, Prof Manoj Joshi – then at the Met Office Hadley Centre and the college of Reading and now at the university of east Anglia – was the very first to suggest out that dynamical procedures in the atmosphere affix temperature and humidity end land and ocean regions.

Specifically, he showed that the lapse rate – the rate of to decrease of temperature with elevation – decreases much more strongly over s than end land together climate warms. This is because the air above the ocean is, at any moment in time, generally holding an ext water vapour than the air end land.

These contrasting lapse rate transforms explain the warming contrast: a weaker diminish in land lapse rate indicates a larger rise in land surface temperature relative to the ocean.

This system is not necessarily intuitive, however relies ~ above well-established processes in atmospheric dynamics. Differing lapse rate changes are now accepted as the an essential driver that the land-ocean warming contrast, an especially at short latitudes (up to approximately 40N and 40S). Amplified warming in regions consisting of the Mediterranean are additionally explained by the very same lapse-rate mechanism.

A quantitative theory

With his 2008 paper, Joshi introduced a new conceptual understanding for the land-ocean warming contrast. But, again, the explanation was qualitative.

Together v Prof Paul O’Gorman indigenous the Massachusetts institute of Technology, i realised that the lapse price argument could be extended and also developed into a quantitative theory.

The vital insight was the although alters in temperature and humidity over land and also ocean are very different, the atmospheric dynamics constraints determined by Joshi indicate that transforms in a particular mix of temperature and also humidity – specifics the energy had in a parcel of air in ~ rest, a quantity recognized as moist static energy – are roughly equal. This insight allowed us to derive an equation for the floor temperature change, i beg your pardon we published in 2018.

What our equation mirrors is the the an answer of floor temperature come climate adjust depends on two factors: ocean warming and also how dry the soil is in today’s climate.

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The drier the floor is, the an ext it warms. The theory has been verified in climate models and using observational data end the past 40 years. The theory defines why soil warming is supposed to be particularly severe in dry, arid subtropical areas and additionally explains why loved one humidity end land has actually been diminish over current decades.