Ecocentric

Oceans Warming Faster Than They Have Over Past 10,000 Years

Greenhouse gas emissions have been rising, but warming has plateaued in recent years. It turns out the heat is likely being absorbed by the ocean depths.

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Photo by Alexis DUCLOS/Gamma-Rapho via Getty Images

A new study finds that the oceans could be holding the missing heat from global warming.

The experts at the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) had a particularly pressing challenge as they prepared the newest assessment on global warming science, the first chapter of which was released in September. The problem was that the climate wasn’t acting the way they’d expected. In recent years, global greenhouse gas emissions had kept rising—hitting an all-time record in 2012. Yet even though the carbon concentration in the atmosphere gradually increased, passing the 400 parts per million threshold earlier this year, the planet’s average surface temperatures have remained pretty much the same over the past 15 years. The Earth hasn’t cooled—this past decade has still been the hottest on record—but  temperatures haven’t risen as climate models predicted. Call it a “pause,” call it a “hiatus,” but the question is clear: where’s the heat?

Try the ocean. That’s one takeaway from a new paper published in Science today, one of a number of studies suggesting that the oceans depths seem to be soaking up the excess heat energy created by the accumulation of greenhouse gases. Researchers led by Yair Rosenthal at Rutgers University reconstructed temperatures in one part of the Pacific Ocean and found that its middle depths have been warming some 15 times faster over the past 60 years than at any other time over the past 10,000 years. It’s as if the oceans have been acting as a battery, absorbing the excess charge created by the greenhouse effect, which leaves less to warm the surface of the planet, where we’d notice it.

(MORE: Slowdown Seen in Rising CO2 Emissions)

That means global warming is still happening, even if hasn’t necessarily been reflected in recent surface temperature changes. But there’s no guarantee that won’t change in the future. “We may have underestimated the efficiency of the oceans as a storehouse for heat and energy,” said Rosenthal in a statement. “It may buy us some time—how much time, I really don’t know. But it’s not going to stop climate change.”

The Science study isn’t the first to peg the oceans as a possible reservoir for the missing heat. An August study in Nature found that a cooler Pacific ocean seemed to be offsetting global warming, and other studies have indicated that the oceans began taking on significant heat around the same time that surface warming began to slow down in 1998. That shouldn’t be surprising—the vast oceans carry 93% of the stored energy from climate change, compared to just 1% for the atmosphere, with melting ice and landmasses making up the rest.

But the Science study goes back further, using sediment core samples taken from the seas around Indonesia, where the Indian and Pacific Oceans mingle. By measuring the levels of magnesium to calcium in the shells of the Hyalinea balthica, a uni-celled organism buried in those sediments, the researchers were able to estimate the temperature of the middle-depth waters where H. balthica lived, between 3,000 ft. and 1,500 ft. (914 m and 457 m) below the surface. Over the past 10,000 years—a period of time known as the Holocene, when the plant’s climate was relatively stable and human civilization arose—the Pacific generally cooled, with a few exceptions, until about 1600, when ocean temperatures began gradually warming.

Over the last 60 years, however, water column temperatures increased by 0.32º F (.185º C)—roughly 15 times faster than any other time over the past 10,000 years. That might not sound like much of a change—surface temperatures rose about 1.4º F (0.78º C) over the past century—but the sheer scale of the oceans underscores just how much energy you need to heat it up even that much. The study is also a reminder that climate change won’t unfold steadily. Surface temperatures could remain stable for a number of years, as they have recently, only to spike suddenly.

The ocean depths still remain somewhat of a mystery to scientists, and they remain woefully understudied given the outsized impact they have on the planet’s climate. Initiatives like the XPRIZE’s new ocean science contests may help produce needed data about the undersea world, though they’ll take place against further budget cuts in the underappreciated National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. It’s become very clear that if we’re going to understand climate change fully—and predict it more precisely—we’ll need to understand the oceans much better than we do now. We may live on land, but our planet is still a blue one.

(MORE: West Coast Leaders Sign Climate Change Pact, Bypassing D.C.)

21 comments
RobertKavanaugh
RobertKavanaugh

This seems pretty obvious and predictable.  Now, single celled anaerobic cyanobacteria will thrive in our vast oceans, which any high school science teacher could explain will result in the conversion of carbon dioxide back into oxygen, as occurred during the earlier evolutions of the planet.  Ecosystems generally balance themselves eventually.  There you go, immediate disaster averted.  I guess the people pushing the climate change hysteria will have to scare us in another way in order for us to give all our money to them.

KennethSandale
KennethSandale

"No discussion of why the change from increased air temperature to increased water temperature.  Seems to be an obvious question.  What is the explanation for  this significant change?  Makes it look like they fishing for a reason to keep up concern for increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere

You seem to think that  because a magazine does not go into sufficient detail about the science, that the actual study did not.

And even if the study had no explanation, that does not mean it is not happening.  For a long time it was known that the planets orbit the Sun but the reason was not known.  But it still was known that they did.

klokeid
klokeid

No discussion of why the change from increased air temperature to increased water temperature.  Seems to be an obvious question.  What is the explanation for  this significant change?  Makes it look like they fishing for a reason to keep up concern for increased carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere.

GoNavy
GoNavy

Note the presentation of these bang-the-drum-until-they-give-in articles.  They never attempt to elicit different or opposing views, and expect us to accept as truth something that is not true. 

.32 of a degree?  Using the undersea fossil record to come up with that type of measure is akin to trying to lower a campfire's temperature by one degree so your marshmallows will come out infinitesimally less brown. 

This is the stuff of unwitting parody. 

AnumakondaJagadeesh
AnumakondaJagadeesh

Excellent study on oceans could be holding the missing heat from global warming. Green house effect is already a serious problem.

Dr.A.Jagadeesh  Nellore(AP),India


CB63
CB63

So has anyone thought that the ocean warming could be on account of increased volcanism?

If an estimate of 4,000 volcanoes per million square kilometers on the floor of the Pacific Ocean is extrapolated for all the oceans than there are more than a million submarine (underwater) volcanoes."

 http://volcano.oregonstate.edu/book/export/html/138

cikyan2012
cikyan2012

Amazing, absolutely amazing. 

Over the last 60 years, however, water column temperatures increased by 0.32º F (.185º C)—roughly 15 times faster than any other time over the past 10,000 years.

They say this with absolute certainty. Brilliant scientists trying to get their names in print.

http://opocotko.blogspot.com/2013/10/rahsia-tahi-lalat-2013.html

DougCheriBledsoe
DougCheriBledsoe

Amazing, absolutely amazing. 

Over the last 60 years, however, water column temperatures increased by 0.32º F (.185º C)—roughly 15 times faster than any other time over the past 10,000 years.

They say this with absolute certainty. Brilliant scientists trying to get their names in print.

tpinlb
tpinlb

From The Hockey Schtick (http://hockeyschtick.blogspot.com/2013/10/new-paper-finds-pacific-ocean-has-been.html)

"A paper published today in Science is devastating to anthropogenic climate alarm, finding reconstructed Pacific Ocean heat content has been significantly higher throughout the vast majority of the past ~10,000 years in comparison to the latter 20th century. In addition, according to the comment by the editor of Science, "The findings support the view that the Holocene Thermal Maximum, the Medieval Warm Period, and the Little Ice Age were global events, and they provide a long-term perspective for evaluating the role of ocean heat content in various warming scenarios for the future."

You forgot to mention that the pacific ocean has been much warmer over most of the last 10,000 years.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@klokeid They assumed that you can actually look up the relationship yourself, if you have that much interest, to establish how air temperatures are transferred to water.

Just a warning: It requires an IQ higher than 90 and any basic physics course to fully grasp the direct relationship between the two.  But it seems to me  that if water can freeze because of cold air temperatures (the heat being drawn out of the warmer water by the cooler air), then the air can be cooled by the cooler water drawing the heat out of the warmer air, and itself warming up.

That's the Homer Simpson explanation, anyway.  For the formulas and other explanations, it's a Google away.  If you think you can handle the truth, that is.

Somehow, I doubt you will Google it or handle the truth.

KennethSandale
KennethSandale

@GoNavy

"Note the presentation of these bang-the-drum-until-they-give-in articles.  They never attempt to elicit different or opposing views"

From your reasoning, every time someone refers to the Holocaust, a conservative should be allowed to try to refute it.

When you were flunking chemistry I n high school, and your teacher was marking your answers as wrong, did you object saying you are allowed your opinion.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@GoNavy If the ocean was a campfire, you may have a point and a valid simile.  The ocean is somewhat larger than a campfire, at least the last time I was on it in the Navy it was.  Maybe your experience is different and you never got more than 3 feet offshore and faced inland all the time.

Perhaps, instead of shooting from the hip with utterly invalid comparisons, you'd actually look up something to really understand what the hell you're talking about for a change. You post as if you know something the people who are paid to do this for a living don't know.  You don't.  Please don't insult the intelligence of others by speaking on subjects with comparisons that have as much relationship to one another as Apples do to Mother Goose.

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@CB63 The level of oceanic volcanism isn't rising enough to explain the difference.  The level of CO2 (and warming) in the atmosphere is.  End of story.

KennethSandale
KennethSandale

@DougCheriBledsoe

"They say this with absolute certainty. Brilliant scientists trying to get their names in print."

You seem puzzled that science can make determinations.  Are you also puzzled that the liberals say dinosaurs existed, even though no  human was there to play fetch with them?

DeweySayenoff
DeweySayenoff

@tpinlb The fact is, the earth HAS been hotter in the past.  No one disputes this.  But the CAUSES have varied both in the past and today.

The BS conclusion is that because the past has been hotter, than today's heating (called "climate change" and not "global warming" because the climate is changing while things are heating up in most places while cooling down in others, so as to avoid confusion), is all part of what's happened in the past.

It's not.

The CAUSE today is anthropomorphic. That means, to the drooling class who can't grasp multi-syllabic words that we humans did it. Back in the past, there have been other things that caused this that are NOT evident or happening today.  

What part of that do these people NOT get?  It's like saying that because a car got 35 MPG ten years ago when it was new, tuned up, with an oil change and road ready, that today, it should still get 35 MPG WITHOUT a tune up, oil change, basic maintenance or other factors that affect mileage since then?  Who the HELL EXPECTS THAT???

No one sane, that's for sure.  Delusional people believe rightist propaganda because billions of dollars are available to persuade them with BS like what tp posted so that they won't do anything to prematurely stop the fossil fuel gravy train.  They've been trained to believe only things that they believe and reject everything else.  That's called delusion.  And it's a bad thing to believe in when one's own survival depends on properly and REALISTICALLY evaluating factors that DIRECTLY affect one's survival.

On the bright side, when humanity is sliding down the crapper because folks like tp preferred to believe the lies of those who put money before everything else, the rest of us, including his doomed offspring and ancestors, can look at him and those like him with contempt and say, "You should have known better."

God, I hate willfully stupid people.

WilliamThrelfall
WilliamThrelfall

@tpinlb you can't relate what's happening today to any other time in our history. These facts are important because they show our effect on the environment. If we keep going at this rate there will be consequences, we need to be proactive in finding a solution.

drdischord
drdischord

@tpinlb You forgot to tell us how your ocean temperature factoid relates to anything in the article.

TatianaRomanova
TatianaRomanova

@DeweySayenoff @klokeid Other than pathetic attempts at insults, your post only goes to show your inability to read.  He didn't ask how the transfer took place but why did the heat suddenly decide to go into the ocean instead of the air.


If the answer was as obvious as you proclaim, than the entire climate community are complete idiots for not predicting it beforehand.  Since none of their models predicted such an obvious answer, they must all be discarded