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The response of the ocean thermal skin layer to

variations in incident infrared radiation

Elizabeth W. Wong* and Peter J. Minnett
Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, University of Miami, Miami, USA
* Now at Centre of Remote Imaging, Sensing and Processing. National University of Singapore, Singapore.

This research is funded by the NASA

Objective: Physical Oceanography Program.
To understand the physical processes that allow increased infrared radiation from atmospheric greenhouse
gases can heat the ocean, given that the infrared radiation does not penetrate beyond a fraction of a millimeter.

Introduction The Hypothesis

Observed ocean warming coincides with increasing concentrations of atmospheric greenhouses gases (Fig. 1, left and center). At
the ocean surface, most of the incoming infrared (IR) radiation is absorbed within the top micrometers of the ocean’s surface (Fig. 1 • Increased infrared radiation from greenhouse gas emission is absorbed in e-m skin layer, increasing temperature in the TSL…
right) where the thermal skin layer (TSL) exists (Fig. 2). Thus, the incident IR radiation does not directly heat the upper few meters of • But, the radiant energy is not absorbed uniformly with depth, leading to a change of curvature of the temperature profile in the TSL…
the ocean. We investigated the physical mechanism between the absorption of IR radiation and its effect on heat transfer at the air- • This leads to less heat entering skin layer from below, for constant surface heat loss….
sea boundary. The hypothesis is that given the heat lost through the air-sea interface is controlled by the TSL; the TSL adjusts in • This means more heat generated from absorption of solar radiation in upper ocean can stay there…
response to variations in incident IR radiation to maintain a constant surface heat loss. This modulates the flow of heat from below • This leads to increasing upper ocean heat content…
the TSL, and hence controls upper ocean heat content. This hypothesis is tested using the increase in IR radiation at the sea • This leads to indirect warming of the ocean by greenhouse gases.
surface from clouds, and analyzing vertical temperature profiles in the TSL retrieved from accurate, remotely sensed, high spectral Increase in IR radiation from increasing levels of greenhouse gases is too small a signal, so, use much larger increases in surface incident IR radiation
resolution measurements of sea-surface emission spectra. We find the surplus energy from the absorption increasing IR radiation (LW in) from cloud cover.
adjusts the curvature of the TSL such that there is a smaller vertical gradient at the interface between the TSL and the water
beneath. This change reduces the upward conduction of heat into the TSL as the additional energy released into the TSL by the
absorption of increased IR radiation supports more of the surface heat loss. Thus, more heat beneath the TSL is retained leading to Results
an increase in upper ocean heat content.
The initial aspiration of assessing changes in the curvature of T(z) in the TSL resulting from changes in LW in was not fulfilled as the relationship was
not robust. But, the observed wind speed dependence of ΔT from the shallowest to the deepest retrievals from M-AERI spectra (ΔTskin – 0.1mm) is very
small whereas ΔT between the shallowest temperature in the M-AERI profile and in situ temperatures at a depth of ~5m (ΔTskin-5m) agreed with
published results (Fig. 4). This indicates at low wind speeds the thickness of the TSL is greater than the e-m skin layer (Fig. 5).

Figure 1. The problem: concentrations of CO2 have been increasing since the start of the Industrial Revolution, and have been measured
accurately since 1958 (left;; concurrently the heat content of the ocean
has been increasing (center; Levitus et al., 2012) at a rate corresponding to ~0.4 Wm-2; but the IR radiation from the atmosphere is
absorbed in less than 1mm depth (right; Bertie and Lan,1996).

Variable Meaning
SSTskin Temperature at z ≈ 0 mm; close to the air‐sea interface. 
Coldest temperature in the TSL profile derived from M‐
AERI measurements. Figure 5. Cartoon of TSL. Solid line: TSL under
SSTsubskin Temperature at lower boundary of the TSL, where the TSL 
Figure 4.Scatter plot high LWin at low winds (< 2 ms-1). Dashed line:
profile transitions to the water below.
SST0.1mm Temperature at the maximum penetration depth of the  of ∆Tskin-0.1mm (top) TSL under low LWin at low winds (< 2 ms-1).
EM skin layer within wavenumbers 500‐3000 cm‐1; the  and ∆Tskin-5m (bottom) Dashed-dotted line: TSL under high winds (> 2
depth of 0.1mm is notional. The warmest temperature in  versus U10. ms-1). Yellow: SST0.1mm. Red: SSTsubskin.
the TSL profile derived from M‐AERI measurements. Green: SSTskin. The vertical scale is non-linear.
SST5m Thermosalingraph measurement at z = 5 m.
∆Tskin‐5m Temperature difference between SSTskin and SST5m. Figure 6. ∆T0.1mm/∆T5m versus U10 - red dots are
∆Tskin‐0.1mm Temperature difference between SSTskin and SST0.1mm. average values binned at every 0.5 ms-1 (top).
∆T0.1mm/∆T5m Ratio of ∆Tskin‐0.1mm to ∆Tskin‐5m. ∆T0.1mm/∆T5m versus LWin@zenith at U10 < 2 ms-1
Figure 2. Cartoon of the TSL profile during night-time conditions with properties and description of the TSL indicated at right.

Skin layers beneath the air-sea interface The U10 dependence of ∆T0.1mm/∆T5m (Fig. 6 top)
shows that at winds <4 ms-1 the TSL becomes
Since the ocean is nearly always and everywhere warmer than the air above it, heat flow from the ocean to the atmosphere. thicker with lower winds, and the dependence on
Within the ocean mixed layer and the atmospheric boundary layer, the vertical transport of heat is done by turbulence, but within a LW in indicates a response of ∆T0.1mm to changing
millimetre or so of the interface, on the water side, there are three skin layers: the electromagnetic (e-m) skin layer and TSL are incident infrared radiation (Fig. 6 bottom). As LW in
embedded in the viscous skin layer. increases, ∆T0.1mm increases, approaching ∆T5m.
• Turbulence is damped in the viscous skin layer, leading to reduction of vertical eddy transport of heat near the surface. Thus, the TSL adjusts to changing LW in and
• Absorption and emission of infrared radiation from sun and atmosphere is in e-m skin layer. given there are no observable changes in the
surface heat loss through turbulent fluxes and
• Temperature gradient in the TSL, T(z), leads to conduction of heat to the interface to supply the heat losses.
through the net LW, the response of the TSL is to
The emission from the sea surface is related to T(z) by: change the heat drawn from below the TSL as
indicated in Fig. 7.
Equation (1)

Im(ν) is the measured radiance at wavenumber ν, B(ν, T(z)) is Planck’s function, d(e−αz)/dz is the weighting function given by Beer’s
law, with α taken from Bertie and Lan (1996) – Fig. 1 right. Details of the derivation of T(z) are in Wong and Minnett (2016a, b).
Figure 7. Time-averaged heat balance of the TSL with and without clouds. These are average values for both cruises used in this study. As clouds increase LWin by
~40 Wm-2 compared to clear sky conditions, a comparable reduction in the heat withdrawn from below the TSL results in more heat being retained in the upper ocean.
We use measurements of the spectra of IR emission from the sea surface taken by the Marine-Atmospheric Emitted Radiance Summary and Conclusions
Interferometer (M-AERI; Minnett et al, 2001) during two research cruises in the Equatorial Pacific and Tropical Atlantic Oceans. A
correction for sky emission is necessary before T(z) can be determined from Equation (1), and this is facilitated by measurements Although the changes in the curvature in T(z) in the TSL cannot be directly determined with current instrumentation, the
of the M-AERI of the sky emission (Fig. 3 left). Analysis is restricted to night-time conditions without precipitation.
consequences are observable in terms of the response of the ratio ∆T0.1mm/∆T5m to LW in changes.
Subsurface temperatures are from thermosalino-
graph systems on ships with intakes at~5m depth.
M-AERI measurements: ~1-2 m2 on the ocean
Thus, the hypothesis is supported.
surface, 90 sec averages. Surface meteorological
data from the ships.
The retrieval of the deepest temperatures in the e-m skin layer requires using measurements close to 2500 cm-1 (4µm
wavelength), the analysis is limited to night-time data as reflected solar radiation contaminates this part of the spectrum
Figure 3. Measurement configuration of the M-AERI (left) during the day. Nevertheless, the processes are expected to hold during the day. The analysis was focused on low wind
and sample brightness temperatures spectrum obtained
from the M-AERI during nighttime and cloud-free speeds where the ratio ∆T0.1mm/∆T5m is significantly smaller than 1. Again, the physical processes are expected to hold at
conditions (right). higher wind speeds, but at present are not measurable.

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Donlon, C. J., P. J. Minnett, C. Gentemann, T. J. Nightingale, I. J. Barton, B. Ward and J. Murray (2002). "Toward improved validation of satellite sea surface skin temperature measurements for climate research." Journal of Climate 15: 353-369.
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Minnett, P. J., R. O. Knuteson, F. A. Best, B. J. Osborne, J. A. Hanafin, and O. B. Brown, 2001: The Marine-Atmospheric Emitted Radiance Interferometer (M-AERI), a high-accuracy, sea-going infrared spectroradiometer. Journal of Atmospheric and Oceanic Technology, 18, 994-1013.
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Wong, E. W. and P. J. Minnett (2016a). "Retrieval of the Ocean Skin Temperature Profiles From Measurements of Infrared Hyperspectral Radiometers - Part I: Derivation of an Algorithm." IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing 54(4): 1879-1890.
Wong, E. W. and P. J. Minnett (2016b). "Retrieval of the Ocean Skin Temperature Profiles From Measurements of Infrared Hyperspectral Radiometers - Part II: Field Data Analysis." IEEE Transactions on Geoscience and Remote Sensing 54(4): 1891-1904.
Wong, E. W. and P. J. Minnett (2018). "Response of the ocean thermal skin layer to external forcing." Journal of Geophysical Research - Oceans. Accepted.