The Response of the Ocean Thermal Skin Layer to Variations in Incident Infrared Radiation

Elizabeth W. Wong, Peter J. Minnett

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

13 Scopus citations


Ocean warming trends are observed and coincide with the increase in concentrations of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere resulting from human activities. At the ocean surface, most of the incoming infrared (IR) radiation is absorbed within the top micrometers of the ocean's surface where the thermal skin layer (TSL) exists. Thus, the incident IR radiation does not directly heat the upper few meters of the ocean. This paper investigates the physical mechanism between the absorption of IR radiation and its effect on heat transfer at the air-sea boundary. The hypothesis is that given the heat lost through the air-sea interface is controlled by the TSL, the TSL adjusts in response to variations in incident IR radiation to maintain the surface heat loss. This modulates the flow of heat from below and hence controls upper ocean heat content. This hypothesis is tested using the increase in incoming longwave radiation from clouds and analyzing vertical temperature profiles in the TSL retrieved from sea-surface emission spectra. The additional energy from the absorption of increasing IR radiation adjusts the curvature of the TSL such that the upward conduction of heat from the bulk of the ocean into the TSL is reduced. The additional energy absorbed within the TSL supports more of the surface heat loss. Thus, more heat beneath the TSL is retained leading to the observed increase in upper ocean heat content.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)2475-2493
Number of pages19
JournalJournal of Geophysical Research: Oceans
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 2018


  • air-sea fluxes
  • climate
  • infrared
  • ocean thermal skin layer
  • remote sensing

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • Geochemistry and Petrology
  • Geophysics
  • Earth and Planetary Sciences (miscellaneous)
  • Space and Planetary Science
  • Oceanography


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