Indicator Specification

Ocean heat content

Indicator Specification
  Indicator codes: CLIM 044
Published 20 Dec 2016 Last modified 04 Oct 2021
6 min read
This page was archived on 04 Oct 2021 with reason: No more updates will be done
Observed change in global ocean heat content at different depths

This indicator has been archived and will no longer be updated.

Information on the development of ocean heat content globally and in the Mediterranean Sea is available from the Ocean Monitoring Indicators "Global Ocean Heat Content (0-700m)" and "Mediterranean Sea Heat Content (0-700m)" maintained by the Copernicus Marine Service:

Assessment versions

Published (reviewed and quality assured)
  • No published assessments


Justification for indicator selection

The ocean is the most dominant component of the Earth’s heat balance, and most of the total warming caused by climate change is manifested in increased ocean heat content (OHC). Isotherms (i.e. contour lines of a given temperature) in the ocean have moved at comparable or faster rates than on land, causing species distribution shifts. Good estimates of past changes in OHC are essential for understanding the role of the oceans in past climate change, and for assessing future climate change. OHC integrates temperature change, the density of seawater and specific heat capacity from the surface down to the deep ocean. OHC is an anomaly calculated in comparison with a reference period. OHC is estimated based on temperature measurements or on reanalyses using a combination of models and observations. Changes in heat content cause the ocean to expand or contract, thereby changing global sea level. This thermosteric effect has contributed about one-quarter to global sea level rise since 1993.

Scientific references

  • No rationale references available

Indicator definition

  • Observed change in global ocean heat content at different depths


  • Ocean heat content (Joule)

Policy context and targets

Context description

In April 2013, the European Commission (EC) presented the EU Adaptation Strategy Package. This package consists of the EU Strategy on adaptation to climate change (COM/2013/216 final) and a number of supporting documents. The overall aim of the EU Adaptation Strategy is to contribute to a more climate-resilient Europe.

One of the objectives of the EU Adaptation Strategy is Better informed decision-making, which will be achieved by bridging the knowledge gap and further developing the European climate adaptation platform (Climate-ADAPT) as the ‘one-stop shop’ for adaptation information in Europe. Climate-ADAPT has been developed jointly by the EC and the EEA to share knowledge on (1) observed and projected climate change and its impacts on environmental and social systems and on human health, (2) relevant research, (3) EU, transnational, national and subnational adaptation strategies and plans, and (4) adaptation case studies.

Further objectives include Promoting adaptation in key vulnerablesectors through climate-proofing EU sector policies and Promoting action by Member States. Most EU Member States have already adopted national adaptation strategies and many have also prepared action plans on climate change adaptation. The EC also supports adaptation in cities through the Covenant of Mayors for Climate and Energy initiative.

In September 2016, the EC presented an indicative roadmap for the evaluation of the EU Adaptation Strategy by 2018.

In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7th EU Environment Action Programme (7th EAP) to 2020, ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. The 7th EAP is intended to help guide EU action on environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020. It highlights that ‘Action to mitigate and adapt to climate change will increase the resilience of the Union’s economy and society, while stimulating innovation and protecting the Union’s natural resources.’ Consequently, several priority objectives of the 7th EAP refer to climate change adaptation.


No targets have been specified.

Related policy documents

  • 7th Environment Action Programme
    DECISION No 1386/2013/EU OF THE EUROPEAN PARLIAMENT AND OF THE COUNCIL of 20 November 2013 on a General Union Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. In November 2013, the European Parliament and the European Council adopted the 7 th EU Environment Action Programme to 2020 ‘Living well, within the limits of our planet’. This programme is intended to help guide EU action on the environment and climate change up to and beyond 2020 based on the following vision: ‘In 2050, we live well, within the planet’s ecological limits. Our prosperity and healthy environment stem from an innovative, circular economy where nothing is wasted and where natural resources are managed sustainably, and biodiversity is protected, valued and restored in ways that enhance our society’s resilience. Our low-carbon growth has long been decoupled from resource use, setting the pace for a safe and sustainable global society.’
  • Climate-ADAPT: Adaptation in EU policy sectors
    Overview of EU sector policies in which mainstreaming of adaptation to climate change is ongoing or explored
  • Climate-ADAPT: Country profiles
    Overview of activities of EEA member countries in preparing, developing and implementing adaptation strategies
  • DG CLIMA: Adaptation to climate change
    Adaptation means anticipating the adverse effects of climate change and taking appropriate action to prevent or minimise the damage they can cause, or taking advantage of opportunities that may arise. It has been shown that well planned, early adaptation action saves money and lives in the future. This web portal provides information on all adaptation activities of the European Commission.
  • EU Adaptation Strategy Package
    In April 2013, the European Commission adopted an EU strategy on adaptation to climate change, which has been welcomed by the EU Member States. The strategy aims to make Europe more climate-resilient. By taking a coherent approach and providing for improved coordination, it enhances the preparedness and capacity of all governance levels to respond to the impacts of climate change.


Methodology for indicator calculation

Ocean heat content is defined as the integrated temperature change times the density of seawater, times specific heat capacity from the surface down to the deep ocean.

The warming of the world ocean since 1955 is estimated using different kinds of observational data: historical data not previously available, additional modern data, correcting for instrumental biases of bathythermograph data, and correcting or excluding some Argo float data.

Methodology for gap filling

Not applicable

Methodology references

No methodology references available.


Data specifications

EEA data references

  • No datasets have been specified here.

External data references

Data sources in latest figures



Methodology uncertainty

See under "Methodology".

Data sets uncertainty

In general, changes related to the physical and chemical marine environment are better documented than biological changes. For example, systematic observations of sea surface temperature began around 1880. More recently, these manual measurements have been complemented by satellite-based observations that have a high resolution in time and a wide geographical coverage, as well as by Argo floats that automatically measure temperature and salinity below the ocean surface.

Recently, it has been determined that past increases in OHC have been substantially underestimated because of poor sampling of the Southern Hemisphere and limitations of the analysis methods. These concerns have not yet been considered in the datasets presented here.

Rationale uncertainty

No uncertainty has been specified

Further work

Short term work

Work specified here requires to be completed within 1 year from now.

Long term work

Work specified here will require more than 1 year (from now) to be completed.

General metadata

Responsibility and ownership

EEA Contact Info

Hans-Martin Füssel


European Environment Agency (EEA)


Indicator code
CLIM 044
Version id: 2

Frequency of updates

Updates are scheduled every 4 years


DPSIR: State
Typology: Descriptive indicator (Type A - What is happening to the environment and to humans?)


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