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 climate change 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 its global distribution comes from satellite ocean colour data. Now that over ten years of satellite-derived chlorophyll and productivity data have accumulated, can we begin to detect and attribute climate change-driven trends in productivity? Here we compare recent trends in satellite ocean colour data to longer-term time series from three biogeochemical models (GFDL, IPSL and NCAR). We find that detection of climate change-driven 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 climate change. Instead, our analyses suggest that a time series of ~40 years length is needed to distinguish a global warming trend from natural variability. In some regions, notably equatorial regions, detection times are predicted to be shorter (~20–30 years). Analysis of modelled chlorophyll and primary production from 2001–2100 suggests that, on average, the climate change-driven 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.