Articles | Volume 9, issue 4
Research article
30 Jul 2013
Research article |  | 30 Jul 2013

Comparing historical and modern methods of sea surface temperature measurement – Part 2: Field comparison in the central tropical Pacific

J. B. R. Matthews and J. B. Matthews

Abstract. Discrepancies between historical sea surface temperature (SST) datasets have been partly ascribed to use of different adjustments to account for variable measurement methods. Until recently, adjustments had only been applied to bucket temperatures from the late 19th and early 20th centuries, with the aim of correcting their supposed coolness relative to engine cooling water intake temperatures. In the UK Met Office Hadley Centre SST 3 dataset (HadSST3), adjustments have been applied over its full duration to observations from buckets, buoys and engine intakes. Here we investigate uncertainties in the accuracy of such adjustments by direct field comparison of historical and modern methods of shipboard SST measurement. We compare wood, canvas and rubber bucket temperatures to 3 m seawater intake temperature along a central tropical Pacific transect conducted in May and June 2008. We find no average difference between the temperatures obtained with the different bucket types in our short measurement period (∼1 min). Previous field, lab and model experiments have found sizeable temperature change of seawater samples in buckets of smaller volume under longer exposure times. We do, however, report the presence of strong near-surface temperature gradients day and night, indicating that intake and bucket measurements cannot be assumed equivalent in this region. We thus suggest bucket and buoy measurements be considered distinct from intake measurements due to differences in sampling depth. As such, we argue for exclusion of intake temperatures from historical SST datasets and suggest this would likely reduce the need for poorly field-tested bucket adjustments. We also call for improvement in the general quality of intake temperatures from Voluntary Observing Ships. Using a physical model we demonstrate that warming of intake seawater by hot engine room air is an unlikely cause of overly warm intake temperatures. We suggest that reliable correction for such warm errors is not possible since they are largely of unknown origin and can be offset by real near-surface temperature gradients.