SST Data Sets: Overview & Comparison Table

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Sea surface temperature (SST) data sets are an essential resource for monitoring and understanding climate variability and climate change.  By surface area, SSTs are the dominant (~71%) input into merged global land-ocean surface temperature data products.   Historically, SST measurments have been made from ships.  Ship data have been compiled into databases like ICOADS, which in turn form the main input into long-term climate data sets like HadSST3 and ERSSTv3b.  Moored and drifting buoys are another primary source of in-situ SST data, especially in remote regions like the Southern Ocean, where ARGO floats offer much improved coverage.  Over the tropical Pacific, the dense TAO-TRITON array provides key measurements for monitoring the emergence and evolution of El Niño events.  In-situ data are also the primary reference for calibrating satellite-based SST estimates. Satellite-based estimates utilize measurements from infrared (IR) and/or microwave wavelengths.  Microwave observations are less sensitive to clouds than IR measurements, but are more sensitive to scattering by rain, and have lower spatial resolution.  For climate research, the longest satellite-based data set is NOAA's OI SSTv2, extending from 1981 to present, with AVHRR IR measurements as the primary source data.  The Group for High-Resolution SST (GHRSST) is an umbrella organization coordinating the development of multi-spectral SST data products for both the operational and climate communities.  Currently, one of the longest global GHRSST products is the Multi-Scale Ultra-High Resolution (MUR) SST analysis, a 0.011 degree lat-lon gridded data set developed by NASA-JPL, covering 2002-present. 

Considerations for utilizing SST data sets in climate research and model evaluation will be discussed in the Expert Guidance section.  Common considerations include  (1) The spatial resolution - e.g., are features like the Gulf Stream and its fronts are eddies resolved? ; (2) The quantity being measured - e.g., is it a "skin" temperature of a very thin surface layer, or a bulk temperature of the upper meter or more?; (3) The homogeneity of the temporal record - e.g.,  have issues like satellite drift, sampling frequency and density, and changing observational practices been dealt with in the construction of the data product?; (3) Spatial Interpolation- e.g. have the data been binned, or statistically interpolated in some manner, and what effect does this have on the spatial and temporal variance of climate signals? 

The figures below illustrate climatologies, standard deviations, and trends in several of the SST data sets commonly used for climate research.  Further information on these data sets is contained in the table below. 

Key Figures

SSTs on 20 Oct 2012 in the North Atlantic (just before the passage of Hurricane Sandy), comparing MUR L4 SST (NASA-JPL) with the AVHRR-only version of OISSTv2 (NOAA-NCDC). Credit: NCAR, David Schneider

Climatology of annual SST in the tropical Pacific in 8 data sets (D Shea, NCAR)

Climatology of annual SST in the North Atlantic (D Shea, NCAR)

Standard Deviation of monthly SST anomalies in the tropical Pacific (D Shea, NCAR)

Standard Deviation of monthly SST anomalies in the north Atlantic (D Shea, NCAR)

Trend of annual SSTs in the tropical Pacific (D Shea, NCAR)

Trend of annual SST in the north Atlantic (D Shea, NCAR)

Trend of annual SST globally (D Shea, NCAR)

Other Information

Earth system components and main variables
Type of data product
Dataset collections

Years of record
Data time period extended
Yes, data set is extended
Climatology, Daily, Monthly, Weekly
Input Data
Vertical Levels:
Missing Data Flag
Ocean or Land
Ocean Only
Spatial Resolution
Model Resolution (reanalysis)
Data Assimilation Method
Model Vintage (reanalysis)

Please cite data sources, following the data providers' instructions
Dataset DOIs
Hosted Climate Index Files
Data Access
Usage Restrictions

Key Publications
Not available...

Summary of SST datasets

Name Snapshot Source Years of record Timestep Spatial Resolution Formats
ICOADS Surface Marine Weather Observations Climate Data Guide Image: ICOADS sea surface temperature NOAA , NCAR Climatology, Daily, Monthly 2x2 (1800-current); 1x1 (1960-current) ascii, binary, IMMA, netCDF
Merged Hadley-NOAA/OI Sea Surface Temperature & Sea-Ice Concentration (Hurrell et al, 2008) Sea ice concentration: Merged Had-OI NCAR / James Hurrell, Adam Phillips, Dennis Shea to Monthly 1° x 1° netCDF
SST (AMSR-E): Sea Surface Temperature from Remote Sensing Systems Climate Data Guide Image: AMSR-E Remote Sensing Systems / C. Gentemann to Daily, Monthly, Weekly 0.25°x0.25° (RSS) or 1°x1° (Obs4MIPS & JPL) netCDF, binary
SST data: COBE: Centennial in situ Observation-Based Estimates M. Ishii to Monthly 1°x1° GRIB
SST data: HadiSST v1.1 HadISST v1.1 SST anomalies and sea ice concentration (August 2012; source Hadley Center). UK Met Office Hadley Center / N. Rayner and others to Monthly 1°x1° netCDF, ascii
SST data: HadSST3 HadSST3 timeseries: ennedy et al (2011b) UK Met Office / J. Kennedy, N. Rayner and others to Monthly 5°x5° netCDF, ascii
SST data: HadSST4 HadSST4.0.0 compared with data from Argo, satellites, and ships (contributed by J Kennedy) UK Met Office / J. Kennedy, N. Rayner and others to Monthly 5°x5° netCDF
SST Data: NOAA Extended Reconstruction SSTs Version 5 (ERSSTv5) ERSSTv5 climatology (contributed by Z Hausfather) NOAA (Boyin Huang) to Climatology, Monthly 2° × 2° netCDF, ascii
SST data: NOAA Extended Reconstruction SSTs, version 3 (ERSSTv3 & 3b) NOAA NCDC/ Boyin Huang, Jay Livermore to Monthly 2°x2° netCDF, ascii
SST data: NOAA Extended Reconstruction SSTs, Version 4 ERSST v4 timeseries (contributed by B. Huang) to Monthly 2°×2° netCDF, ascii
SST data: NOAA High-resolution (0.25x0.25) Blended Analysis of Daily SST and Ice, OISSTv2 NOAA NCDC/Richard Reynolds to Daily 0.25°x0.25° netCDF, binary
SST data: NOAA Optimal Interpolation (OI) SST Analysis, version 2 (OISSTv2) 1x1 Climate Data Guide Image: NOAA SST range NOAA / R. Reynolds to Climatology, Monthly, Weekly 1x1 netCDF, ascii, binary