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


Last year, an international temperatures were 0.95C warmer than the 20th century average. Human activity is responsible for about 100% that this warming.

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Delving a little deeper right into these numbers shows the the earth’s land locations were 1.43C warmer 보다 average, when the oceans were 0.77C warmer. This is evidence of just how the world continents have warmed more rapidly 보다 its seas over current decades.

This contrast in between land and also ocean temperature readjust will strongly form the an international pattern the future warming and also has vital implications because that humans. We are, ~ all, a varieties that much prefers to live on land.

But what drives this warming contrast? the a deceptively an easy question, however one v a much-misunderstood answer. In this guest post, I summary a robust, quantitative concept for the land-ocean warming contrast that has actually only been occurred in current years.

Heat capacity

Simple physics suggests that when you put more heat into the climate system, land must warm much more quickly than oceans. This is due to the fact that land has a smaller “heat capacity” 보다 water, which method it needs less warmth to raise its temperature.

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

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Amplified warming over land apparent in surface temperature documents from NOAA. Chart shows yearly average temperatures because that land (yellow line), s (dark blue) and land and also ocean an unified (light blue). All figures relative to 1901-2000. Data from NOAA; graph by Carbon brief using Highcharts.

This result can likewise be viewed in various parts that the seasonal climate system. Because that example, as the sunlight moves north of the equator during the north hemisphere spring, its energy rapidly heats India relative to surrounding oceans. This comparison in heating plays a vital role in the reversal of winds the drives the southern Asia monsoon.

Land’s small heat capacity also helps to explain why some continental regions, such together Russia and the central US, can get really hot in summer yet bitterly cold in winter. This is known as “continentality”.

Given its central role in the seasonal land-ocean warming contrast, warmth capacity is the natural beginning point as soon as attempting to describe why continent warm more than oceans under climate change. But there is a problem with this explanation.

Warming contrast

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

In various other words, they to be comparing the climate while CO2 was increasing with the climate once CO2 had stopped rising and also the climate had at some point stabilised in ~ its new, warmer state.

If the distinction in warmth capacities in between land and oceans to be the decisive factor managing the warming contrast, we would expect the contrast to disappear in ~ equilibrium once the oceans have had adequate time to warmth up.

But this is no what Manabe found. Instead, he uncovered that the ratio of land to ocean warming (now recognized as the “amplification factor”) was comparable in both the transient and also equilibrium experiments.

This was evidence that the land-ocean warming contrast – emphasize in the map listed below of projected warming because that the end of this century – is a basic response to climate change that is not regulated by heat capacity. If heat capacity cannot explain enhanced land warming in a transforming climate, what can?


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Climate model projection that the adjust in near-surface temperature by the finish of the 21st century (2080-2100) relative to the historical period (1980-2000). Data native the GFDL-CM4 model under the fossil-fueled, high emissions SSP58.5 scenario; graph by M Byrne.


Beyond warm capacity

The very first explanation, at first put forward by Manabe, invokes the surface power balance. This describes the exchange the energy between the earth surface and the atmosphere above it.

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

But the level of this CO2-induced surface ar warming counts on how much is well balanced by localised factors that reason cooling – namely, cooling resulted in by evaporation and cooling because of the exchange of dried heat in between the soil surface and also the air over it. (The atmospheric warming resulted in by the latter likewise tends to inhibit cloud formation and, thus, can reason further dry of the land surface.)

Oceans – which have endless water to evaporate – can efficiently cool us in a warming climate by evaporating an ext and much more water with just a little temperature increase. Continents, top top the other hand, generally have restricted moisture access and therefore evaporation is constrained.

This means that, end continents, much more of the extra radiation going right into the surface ar in a warming climate needs to be dissipated with the exchange of dried heat and longwave radiative cooling, rather than evapotranspiration. This implies a larger increase in surface ar temperature compared to the easily evaporating oceans.

This “surface energy balance” theory for the land-ocean warming contrast has also been put forward in an ext recent studies.

This explanation for amplified continental warming is intuitive and also hints in ~ a key role for land “dryness” in identify the temperature change. But it demands to be supported by difficult numbers.

An concern with the surface power balance concept is the it depends on properties of the land surface ar – which space varied, facility and notoriously difficult to simulate – in stimulate to be accurately stood for in climate models. In particular, quantifying how evapotranspiration will respond to a changing climate – the key ingredient that the surface energy balance theory – requires understanding of regional soil moisture and vegetation and also how this properties themselves change with climate. A difficult task.

Moreover, components in the overlying environment are also important: how will rainfall and also winds change? The myriad processes influencing land surface power balance mean that utilizing this framework as a basis because that a quantitative theory for the land-ocean warming comparison is challenging. Return the perspective is conceptually useful, it offers an incomplete understanding of the physics driving the warming contrast.

A brand-new idea

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

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

Specifically, he showed that the lapse price – the price of diminish of temperature with elevation – decreases much more strongly over s than over land together climate warms. This is since the air over the ocean is, at any moment in time, frequently holding an ext water vapour than the air end land.

These contrasting lapse rate changes explain the warming contrast: a weaker diminish in soil lapse rate implies a larger boost in land surface ar temperature relative to the ocean.

This system is no necessarily intuitive, however relies top top well-established procedures in atmospheric dynamics. Differing lapse rate transforms are now accepted as the fundamental driver that the land-ocean warming contrast, an especially at low latitudes (up to around 40N and 40S). Intensified warming in regions including the Mediterranean are likewise explained by the exact same lapse-rate mechanism.

A quantitative theory

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

Together with Prof Paul O’Gorman native the Massachusetts academy of Technology, ns realised that the lapse price argument can be extended and also developed into a quantitative theory.

The key insight was the although transforms in temperature and humidity over land and also ocean are an extremely different, the atmospheric dynamics constraints figured out by Joshi indicate that transforms in a particular combination of temperature and also humidity – special, the energy included in a parcel of air at rest, a quantity well-known as moist static power – are approximately equal. This insight enabled us to derive an equation for the land temperature change, i beg your pardon we published in 2018.

What our equation shows is the the an answer of soil temperature to climate adjust depends on two factors: s warming and also how dried the soil is in today’s climate.

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The drier the floor is, the an ext it warms. The theory has actually been proved in climate models and also using observational data end the past 40 years. The theory describes why soil warming is expected to be an especially severe in dry, arid subtropical regions and likewise explains why relative humidity end land has been decreasing over current decades.