Oceans absorbing 60% more heat than thought, say scientists

Mindy Sparks
November 2, 2018

Not only do they absorb heaps of our carbon emissions, but we also rely on them to soak up over 90 percent of excess heat energy. The authors found that between 1991 and 2016, the oceans warmed by 60% more than the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) estimated in its 2014 Fifth Assessment Report on climate change.

"We thought that we got away with not a lot of warming in both the ocean and the atmosphere for the amount of Carbon dioxide that we emitted", Laure Resplandy, a Princeton geoscientist who led the study told the Washington Post.

Climate scientists say rising ocean temperatures have fueled more powerful storms and are killing off underwater wildlife like Australia's Great Barrier Reef.

"Our data show that it would have warmed by 6.5 degrees Celsius (11.7 degrees Fahrenheit) every decade since 1991". In comparison, the estimate of the last IPCC assessment report would correspond to a warming of only 4 degrees Celsius [7.2 degrees Fahrenheit] every decade.

Earlier this month, the United Nations issued a landmark report that said a rise in global temperatures above 1.5 degrees Celsius-which could come as early as 2030-could cause catastrophic damage unless "rapid and unprecedented" changes in energy use is made before then. Coastal flooding, food shortages, and a mass die-off of coral reefs could be upon us by 2040.


"The result significantly increases the confidence we can place in estimates of ocean warming and therefore helps reduce uncertainty", said Ralph Keeling, a geophysicist at the University of California-San Diego and co-author of the study. From this, we can conclude that the Earth is more sensitive to fossil-fuel emissions than anticipated.

This study reveals that a lot of the heat that was thought to be escaping to space is actually being absorbed in the ocean - and means the planet is more sensitive to carbon emissions than was thought, he said. If oceans rise faster than forecast, that represents more of an immediate threat to low-lying communities. That amount coincides the heat-energy content of the ocean.

It found that for each of the past 25 years, oceans absorbed heat energy equivalent to 150 times the amount of electricity mankind produces annually.

During this time frame, the researchers calculated that the world's oceans took up more than 13 zettajoules - which is a joule, the standard unit of energy, followed by 21 zeroes. The researchers used a different way to measure ocean warmth, "an independent estimate by using measurements of atmospheric oxygen and carbon dioxide-levels of which increase as the ocean warms and releases gases-as a whole-ocean thermometer".

The study was funded by NOAA's Climate Program Office and the Princeton Environmental Institute. During their research, scientists discovered that the Earth's oceans have absorbed 60-percent more heat than past estimates have found.

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