By Dr. Pedro Villegas
“Global warming threatens our health, our economy, our natural resources, and our children’s future. It is clear we must act”. –Eliot Spitzer–
Scientists say the world’s oceans are warming far more quickly than previously thought, a finding with dire implications for Climate Change because almost all the excess heat absorbed by the planet ends up stored in their waters. A new report, found that the oceans are heating up 40% faster on average than a United Nations panel estimated five years ago. The researchers also concluded that ocean temperatures have broken records for several straight years.
As the planet has warmed, the oceans have provided a critical buffer. They have slowed the effects of Climate Change by absorbing 93% of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gases humans’ pump into the atmosphere. But the surging water temperatures are already killing off marine ecosystems, raising sea levels and making hurricanes more destructive.
As the oceans continue to heat up, those effects will become more catastrophic, scientists say. Rainier, more powerful storms like Hurricane Harvey in 2017 and Hurricane Florence in 2018 will become more common, and coastlines around the world will flood more frequently. Coral reefs, whose fish populations are sources of food for hundreds of millions of people, will come under increasing stress; a fifth of all corals have already died in the past three years.
People in the tropics, who rely heavily on fish for protein, could be hard hit, said Kathryn Matthews, Deputy Chief Scientist for the conservation group Oceana. “The actual ability of the warm oceans to produce food is much lower, so that means they are going to be more quickly approaching food insecurity”, she said.
Because they play such a critical role in global warming, oceans are one of the most important areas of research for Climate Scientists. Average ocean temperatures are also a consistent way to track the effects of greenhouse gas emissions because they are not influenced much by short-term weather patterns. In fact, Oceans are really the best thermometer we have for changes in the Earth.
But, historically, understanding ocean temperatures has been difficult. An authoritative United Nation Report, issued in 2014 by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, presented five different estimates of ocean heat, but they all showed less warming than the levels projected by computer climate models, suggesting that either the ocean heat measurements or the climate models were inaccurate.
Since the early 2000s, scientists have measured ocean heat using a network of drifting floats called Argo, named after Jason’s ship in Greek mythology. The floats measure the temperature and saltiness of the upper 6,500 feet of the ocean and upload the data via satellites. But before Argo, researchers relied on temperature sensors that ships lowered into the ocean with copper wire. The wire transferred data from the sensor to the ship for recording until the wire broke and the sensor drifted away.
That method was subject to uncertainties, particularly around the accuracy of the depth at which the measurement was taken. Those uncertainties hamper today’s scientists as they stitch together XX Century temperature data into a global historical record.
In the new analysis, scientist assessed three recent studies that better accounted for the older instrument biases. The results converged at an estimate of ocean warming that was higher than that of the 2014 United Nations Report and more in line with the climate models. The waters closest to the surface have heated up the most, and that warming has accelerated over the past two decades, according to data from this new study.
As the oceans heat up, sea levels rise because warmer water takes up more space than colder water. In fact, most of the sea level rise observed to date is because of this warming effect, not melting ice caps.
There are still absent global actions to reduce carbon emissions. The warming alone would cause sea levels to rise by about a foot by 2100, and the ice caps would contribute more. That could exacerbate damages from severe coastal flooding and storm surge.
The effects of the warming on marine life could also have broad repercussions. As the ocean heats up, it is driving fish into new places, and we are already seeing that that is driving conflict between countries. It is spilling over far beyond just fish, it is turned into trade wars. It is turned into diplomatic disputes and it is led to a breakdown in international relations in some cases.
A fourth study reviewed by the researchers strengthened their conclusions. That study used a novel method to estimate ocean temperatures indirectly, and it also found that the world’s oceans were heating faster than the authors of previous studies estimated.
We are warming the planet but the ocean is not warming evenly, so different places warm more than others. And so, the first consequence will be that sea level will be different in different places depending on the warming. If immediate actions are not taken, 2019 is going to be the warmest year on record for the Earth’s oceans, as 2018 was the warmest year, and 2017 was the warmest year too. In fact, the ocean is saving us from massive warming right now.
You can reach your own conclusions.
God bless Belize!
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