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Journal of Climate





An accurate diagnosis of ocean heat content (OHC) is essential for interpreting climate variability and change, as evidenced for example by the broad range of hypotheses that exists for explaining the recent hiatus in global mean surface warming. Potential insights are explored here by examining relationships between OHC and sea surface height (SSH) in observations and two recently available large ensembles of climate model simulations from the mid-twentieth century to 2100. It is found that in decadal-length observations and a model control simulation with constant forcing, strong ties between OHC and SSH exist, with little temporal or spatial complexity. Agreement is particularly strong on monthly to interannual time scales. In contrast, in forced transient warming simulations, important dependencies in the relationship exist as a function of region and time scale. Near Antarctica, low-frequency SSH variability is driven mainly by changes in the circumpolar current associated with intensified surface winds, leading to correlations between OHC and SSH that are weak and sometimes negative. In subtropical regions, and near other coastal boundaries, negative correlations are also evident on long time scales and are associated with the accumulated effects of changes in the water cycle and ocean dynamics that underlie complexity in the OHC relationship to SSH. Low-frequency variability in observations is found to exhibit similar negative correlations. Combined with altimeter data, these results provide evidence that SSH increases in the Indian and western Pacific Oceans during the hiatus are suggestive of substantial OHC increases. Methods for developing the applicability of altimetry as a constraint on OHC more generally are also discussed.


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