"NOAA Ocean Explorer: Pacific Deep Reefs 2011 Exploration: Mission Summary" by NOAA Ocean Exploration & Research is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Rising Ocean Temperatures Are A Threat To Human Survival

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Scientists tend to focus on the levels of carbon dioxide and methane in the atmosphere as the causes of global heating. Yet most of the excess heat added to the environment since the start of the Industrial Revolution has been absorbed by the ocean, which covers 70% of the planet.

The ocean is like the cooling system in a conventional car. It can do an amazing job of absorbing waste heat, but once it reaches its limit, watch out. There is a full-fledged disaster ahead that most are unaware of it because accurate information about what is happening in the ocean is so difficult to acquire.

“The heat holding capacity of the oceans is mammoth,” Paul Durack, a research scientist who specializes in ocean measurements and modelling at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, tells The Guardian. “The ocean captures more than 90% of the imbalance of energy that we’re creating because of anthropogenic climate change.”

The Ocean & Global Heating

Between 1971 and 2018, the ocean has gained 396 zettajoules of heat, according to climate scientists. How much heat is that? It is equivalent to the energy of more than 25 billion Hiroshima atomic bombs. To make matters worse, the rise in ocean temperatures is accelerating. A technical chart in chapter 7 of the latest IPCC 6 climate assessment laid out the extent of the heat gain.

Matthew England, an oceanographer and climate scientist at the University of New South Wales, told The Guardian, “Remember the world is 70% covered by ocean. It should have been called Ocean, not Earth.” He said that simple physics means the ocean “has this huge ability to absorb heat and then hold on to it.” To raise the temperature of a cubic meter of air by 1º C requires about 2,000 joules, but to raise the temperature of a cubic meter of seawater requires about 4,200,000 joules.

“By absorbing all this heat, the ocean lulls people into a false sense of security that climate change is progressing slowly. But there is a huge payback. It’s overwhelming when you start to go through all the negative impacts of a warming ocean, ” England said.

“There’s sea level rise, coastal inundation, increased floods and drought cycles, bleached corals, intensification of cyclones, ecological impacts, melting of ice at higher latitudes in the coastal margins — that gives us a double whammy on sea level rise. The oceans have stored the problem but it’s coming back to bite us.”

Right now, all that heat is coming back to bite us in the form of wildfires in western Canada, and Cyclone Mocha as it devastates Bangladesh.

Antarctica ocean currents
Image credit: NOAA

The Ocean & Data Collection

To understand what’s happening below the ocean surface, out of sight of satellites, scientists look at a vast network of thousands of thermometers on buoys, ships, underwater gliders, and permanent moorings.

Paul Durack says it wasn’t until about 20 years ago that a view of the changes in the ocean, which climate scientists have predicted for a long time, started to become clear as more data became available. Now scientists have been able to get a longer view going back many more decades by using climate models.

“When we look at the climate models and compare them with the observations, we get consistent results across that simulated Earth and the real Earth. They’re all showing consistent warming,” Durack said.

Dr. Bernadette Sloyan researches changes in the ocean at Australia’s CSIRO government science agency. She tells The Guardian, “This is where the ocean is like a flywheel that drives our climate and that’s all because of the amount of energy it takes to heat it up. We have this constant talking between the ocean and the atmosphere that’s driving our weather and, annually, that’s our climate.”

Sloyan said the ocean has acted like the planet’s air conditioner, continuously absorbing extra heat. “But that air conditioner isn’t just passive. It is not a free service. Adding that heat has come with ocean acidification, rising sea levels, and changes in the frequency of extreme weather.” The effects of the extra heat are everywhere. As the ocean heats up, it expands, pushing up sea levels around the globe. Just over one-third of the rise in global sea levels is attributable to this thermal expansion.

Devastating Heat

More heat means more of the marine heatwaves that have devastated marine ecosystems, causing bleaching on coral reefs and killing underwater plants that provide habitats for marine life and act as nurseries for fisheries. Ocean heating could radically alter marine food webs, with warmer conditions favoring smaller species and algae at the expense of the larger species that humans tend to eat. In other words, ocean heating is disrupting the food chain that billions of humans rely on for sustenance.

In the deep ocean, where species have adapted to stable temperatures, scientists have said warming there in the coming decades could devastate marine life. In the tropics where oceans are warmest, scientists have found some species are already migrating towards the poles to find cooler waters. But with no other species able to take their place, this leaves behind waters stripped of marine life.

In places like the Mediterranean, where land blocks a route to cooler waters, Prof. David Schoeman says many species will run out of ocean. “Fish can’t just climb out of the water so they may have to go deeper,” says Schoeman of the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia, who helped coordinate the latest UN climate assessment’s work on the ocean.

But if species go deeper to survive the heat, this could present another problem. Schoeman says near the surface, waters easily mix with the air above to provide enough oxygen for marine life. But as deeper waters warm, they hold less oxygen, potentially cutting off another survival option for some species.

Schoeman says much of the heat that has pushed surface temperatures to new highs in recent weeks is likely coming from below. “Every year about 134 million atomic bombs of heat is being trapped by the ocean. It has kept global temperatures down and kept the land livable but we have to realize that energy hasn’t gone.”

There’s a big problem with all that heat in the world’s oceans. It took less than 200 years to raise the temperature of sea water to dangerous levels and it will take at least that long to cool the oceans as well. So even if we humans stopped putting more carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere today (we know that’s not going to happen), ocean temperatures won’t get back to normal until our grandchildren’s grandchildren have grandchildren of their own.

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Social Media & Global Heating

Some readers won’t like what comes next, but it needs to be said. One of the primary reasons why humanity is not doing enough to address our overheating planet is social media. Both Fakebook and Twitter use algorithms that intensify criticism of climate scientists.

“There’s been a massive change,” after Elon Musk took over Twitter, Mark Maslin, professor of earth system science at University College London, told The Guardian recently.  “I get so much abuse and rude comments now. It’s happening to all of us, but I challenge the climate deniers so I’ve been really targeted.”

Maslin says he used to have regular meetings with Sean Boyle, Twitter’s former head of sustainability, who was laid off when Musk bought Twitter. “They were using climate change as a good test bed, because it was fairly clear who the good and bad actors were,” Maslin said. “But he was sacked and Twitter became the wild west.”

Doug McNeall, a statistician working on climate change at the Met Office Hadley Centre in Exeter, said he had blocked or muted many accounts on Twitter even before Musk’s arrival. “I got to the point where it was definitely affecting my mental health,” he said. “I spent years debating quite strongly with climate skeptics, including people I assume were paid, but there can be a real personal cost interacting over a long time with people who are abusing you.”

Ed Hawkins, professor of climate science at Reading University who has 94,000 Twitter followers, said he had seen a “huge increase” in tweets from climate denier accounts, often involving conspiracy theories or long debunked topics. “A larger fraction of the comments are personal and abusive,” he said. “Any mildly popular tweet from a climate scientist is now targeted for a barrage of replies. It appears to be a coordinated effort [by climate change deniers] to make it appear as though climate denial is more prevalent than it really is,” he said.

In theory, Elon Musk should be taking steps to promote accurate information about climate change. He says Tesla is all about decarbonizing transportation and battery storage decarbonizing the grid, but he has adopted policies that allow attacks on climate scientists to flourish. He is in a position to do so much, and yet has done so little. Mark Zuckerberg is just a culpable as Elon, but at least he doesn’t pretend to be saving the world. He admits he is only in it for the money.

So we are calling you out, Elon, and saying you are failing to live up to your publicly stated principals. You should be ashamed of yourself. If the Musketeers in the audience are offended by that, so be it. The truth hurts. Deal with it.

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Steve Hanley

Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Florida or anywhere else The Force may lead him. He is proud to be "woke" and doesn't really give a damn why the glass broke. He believes passionately in what Socrates said 3000 years ago: "The secret to change is to focus all of your energy not on fighting the old but on building the new." You can follow him on Substack and LinkedIn but not on Fakebook or any social media platforms controlled by narcissistic yahoos.

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