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Climate Change

Climate Change Indicators in the United States

Key Points
  • Sea surface temperature increased over the 20th century and continues to rise. From 1901 through 2012, temperatures rose at an average rate of 0.13°F per decade (see Figure 1).
  • Sea surface temperatures have been higher during the past three decades than at any other time since reliable observations began in 1880 (see Figure 1).
  • Increases in sea surface temperature have largely occurred over two key periods: between 1910 and 1940, and from about 1970 to the present. Sea surface temperatures appear to have cooled between 1880 and 1910 (see Figure 1).

Sea surface temperature—the temperature of the water at the ocean surface—is an important physical attribute of the world's oceans. The surface temperature of the world's oceans varies mainly with latitude, with the warmest waters generally near the equator and the coldest waters in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. As the oceans absorb more heat, sea surface temperatures will increase and the ocean circulation patterns that transport warm and cold water around the globe will change.

Changes in sea surface temperature can alter marine ecosystems in several ways. For example, variations in ocean temperature can affect what species of plants and animals are present in a location, alter migration and breeding patterns, threaten sensitive ocean life such as corals, and change the frequency and intensity of harmful algal blooms. 1 Over the long term, increases in sea surface temperature could also reduce the circulation patterns that bring nutrients from the deep sea to surface waters. Changes in reef habitat and nutrient supply can lead to declines in fish populations, which in turn could affect people who depend on fishing for food or jobs. 2

Because the oceans continuously interact with the atmosphere, sea surface temperature can also have profound effects on global climate. Based on increases in sea surface temperature, the amount of atmospheric water vapor over the oceans is estimated to have increased by about 5 percent during the 20th century. 3 This water vapor feeds weather systems that produce precipitation, increasing the risk of heavy rain and snow (see the Heavy Precipitation and Tropical Cyclone Activity indicators). Changes in sea surface temperature can also shift storm tracks, potentially contributing to droughts in some areas.

About the Indicator

This indicator tracks average global sea surface temperature from 1880 through 2012 using data compiled by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. Techniques for measuring sea surface temperature have evolved since the 1800s. For instance, the earliest data were collected by inserting a thermometer into a water sample collected by lowering a bucket from a ship. Today, temperature measurements are collected more systematically from ships, as well as at stationary and drifting buoys.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration has carefully reconstructed and filtered the data for this indicator to correct for biases in the different collection techniques and to minimize the effects of sampling changes over various locations and times. The data are shown as anomalies, or differences, compared with the average sea surface temperature from 1971 to 2000.

Indicator Notes

Because this indicator tracks sea surface temperature at a global scale, the data shown in Figure 1 do not necessarily reflect local or regional trends.

Due to denser sampling and improvements in sampling design and measurement techniques, newer data are more precise than older data. The earlier trends shown by this indicator have less certainty because of lower sampling frequency and less precise sampling methods, as shown by the width of the blue shaded band in Figure 1.

Data Sources

Data for this indicator were provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's National Climatic Data Center and are available online at: www.ncdc.noaa.gov/ersst. These data were reconstructed from measurements of water temperature, which are available from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration at: http://icoads.noaa.gov/ products.html.

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