Ocean temperatures and associated sea level increases between 1961 and 2003 were actually 50 percent higher than earlier predictions, new research has found.
The previous predictions came in the 2007 Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report.
An international team of researchers, including Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory climate scientist Peter Gleckler, carried out the new research.
They compared climate models with improved observations that show sea levels rose by 1.5 millimeters per year in the period from 1961-2003. That equates to an approximately 21/2-inch increase in ocean levels in a 42-year span.
The ocean warming and thermal expansion rates are more than 50 percent larger than previous estimates for the upper 300 meters of oceans.
The research corrected for small but systematic biases recently discovered in the global ocean observing system, and uses statistical techniques that "infill" information in data-sparse regions.
The results increase scientists' confidence in ocean observations and further demonstrate that climate models simulate ocean temperature variability more realistically than previously thought.
"This is important for the climate modeling community because it demonstrates that the climate models used for assessing sea-level rise and ocean warming tie in closely with the observed results," said Gleckler.
Climate model data were analyzed from 13 different modeling groups. All model data were obtained from the WCRP CMIP3 multi-model dataset archived at the LLNL's Program for Climate Model Diagnosis and Intercomparison (PCMDI).
Results were compared with recent estimates of other contributions to sea-level rise including glaciers, ice caps, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, and thermal expansion changes in the deep ocean.
When these independent lines of evidence are examined collectively, the story is more consistent than found in earlier studies.
The oceans store more than 90 percent of the heat in the Earth's climate system and act as a temporary buffer against the effects of climate change.
The ocean warming and thermal expansion rates are 50 percent larger than previous estimates for the upper 700 meters of oceans, and greater than that for the upper 300 meters.
According to Gleckler, "This is just the tip of the iceberg, so to speak."
"Our ability to quantify structural uncertainties in observationally based estimates is critically important. This study represents important progress," he added.