1Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences, Princeton University, Princeton, NJ, USA
2NOAA Geophysical Fluid Dynamics Laboratory, Princeton, NJ, USA
3Laboratoire des Sciences du Climat et de l'Environnement, Gif sur Yvette, France
4Dept. of Marine Chemistry and Geochemistry, Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, Woods Hole, MA, USA
*now at: National Oceanography Centre, Southampton, UK
Abstract. Global warming is predicted to alter the ocean's biological productivity. But how will we recognise the impacts of climate change on ocean productivity? The most comprehensive information available on the global distribution of ocean productivity comes from satellite ocean colour data. Now that over ten years of SeaWiFS data have accumulated, can we begin to detect and attribute global warming trends in productivity? Here we compare recent trends in SeaWiFS data to longer-term records from three biogeochemical models (GFDL, IPSL and NCAR). We find that detection of real trends in the satellite data is confounded by the relatively short time series and large interannual and decadal variability in productivity. Thus, recent observed changes in chlorophyll, primary production and the size of the oligotrophic gyres cannot be unequivocally attributed to the impact of global warming. Instead, our analyses suggest that a time series of ~40 yr length is needed to distinguish a global warming trend from natural variability. Analysis of modelled chlorophyll and primary production from 2001–2100 suggests that, on average, the global warming trend will not be unambiguously separable from decadal variability until ~2055. Because the magnitude of natural variability in chlorophyll and primary production is larger than, or similar to, the global warming trend, a consistent, decades-long data record must be established if the impact of climate change on ocean productivity is to be definitively detected.