Wild fires. Severe storms. Record breaking rains. Heat waves. All occurred in abundance in 2018, and 2018 is shaping up to be the hottest for the oceans as a whole, and therefore for the Earth, in the instrumental record. Global warming is here, and has major consequences already. There is no doubt, none! On January 11, 2019, an important article in Science magazine asks the question about "How fast are the oceans warming?" The subtitle gives the answer: "Observational records of ocean heat content show that ocean warming is accelerating."
All of these aspects are now very well measured owing to a fairly new ocean observing system called Argo. The network of autonomous profiling floats has now been in place for over 13 years. Also, the quality of older ocean data has been substantially improved, and there are both better and independent methods that account for the sparseness of ocean data before Argo era. Together these advances have enabled quality reconstructions of the past ocean temperature record back to about 1960, enabling the context of the record-breaking recent observations to be properly established. The new article, led by Dr. Lijing Cheng of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences, highlights how the new observations along with adjusted older records now clearly show not only how the ocean is warming but that the warming is accelerating.
Drs. Lijing Cheng and Kevin Trenberth attended the international World Climate Research Programme conference in September 2016.
Credit: Lijing Cheng
Credit: Lijing Cheng
The newly available ocean heat content time series from multiple groups show more consistent but stronger ocean warming since 1960 than previously reported (by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's Fifth Assessment Report published in 2013). 2018 is likely to be the hottest year for the oceans on record, beating out 2017 which held the record. 2015 is next warmest, although 2016 was the hottest for the global mean surface temperature, but that was in part because of the huge El Niño event that took place: the extra heat at the surface was at the expense of the ocean which cooled off slightly. By taking up about 93% of the Earth's energy imbalance created by increasing heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere from human activities, the oceans are the main memory of climate change.
A new analysis shows that ocean temperatures are on the rise -- and they are going up faster than once thought.
Credit: public domain photo
Moreover, this warming contributes to the rising sea level. It has also contributed to increases in rainfall intensity and stronger, longer-lasting storms, such as Harvey in 2017 and Florence in 2018. In turn declines in ice sheets, glaciers and ice caps, along with declining ocean oxygen levels and destruction of corals reefs accompany the warming ocean. Moreover, the revised and updated ocean heat content record is much more in step with the warming predicted by climate models, thereby providing much more confidence in expectations for the future.
The climate models project continuous ocean warming in the 21th century; how much depends on human actions to address climate change. If no actions are taken ("business as usual"), the upper ocean above 2000 meters will warm by 2020 ZetaJoules by 2081-2100, which is about 6 times larger than the total ocean warming during the past 60 years. If the target of the Paris Agreement can be reached, the total ocean warming could be cut in half by 2081-2100 (about 1037 ZetaJoules).
The fairly steady rise in ocean heat content clearly shows that the planet is warming. Ocean heat content is not bothered much by weather fluctuations that do, however, affect the surface temperatures, and it is somewhat affected by El Niño events. With consequences in the tens of billions of dollars per year, and prospects for further increases in ocean heat content and sea level rise, the case for much more urgency in addressing the causes of global warming is abundantly clear
Heat trapped by greenhouse gases is raising ocean temperatures faster than previously thought, concludes an analysis of four recent ocean heating observations. The results provide further evidence that earlier claims of a slowdown or "hiatus" in global warming over the past 15 years were unfounded.
"If you want to see where global warming is happening, look in our oceans," said Zeke Hausfather, a graduate student in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, Berkeley, and co-author of the paper. "Ocean heating is a very important indicator of climate change, and we have robust evidence that it is warming more rapidly than we thought."
Ocean heating is critical marker of climate change because an estimated 93 percent of the excess solar energy trapped by greenhouse gases accumulates in the world's oceans. And, unlike surface temperatures, ocean temperatures are not affected by year-to-year variations caused by climate events like El Nino or volcanic eruptions.
Assuming a "business-as-usual" scenario in which no effort has been made to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, the Coupled Model Intercomparison Project 5 (CMIP5) models predict that the temperature of the top 2,000 meters of the world's oceans will rise 0.78 degrees Celsius by the end of the century. The thermal expansion caused by this bump in temperature would raise sea levels 30 centimeters, or around 12 inches, on top of the already significant sea level rise caused by melting glaciers and ice sheets. Warmer oceans also contribute to stronger storms, hurricanes and extreme precipitation.
"While 2018 will be the fourth warmest year on record on the surface, it will most certainly be the warmest year on record in the oceans, as was 2017 and 2016 before that," Hausfather said. "The global warming signal is a lot easier to detect if it is changing in the oceans than on the surface."
The four studies, published between 2014 and 2017, provide better estimates of past trends in ocean heat content by correcting for discrepancies between different types of ocean temperature measurements and by better accounting for gaps in measurements over time or location.
"The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change's (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report, published in 2013, showed that leading climate change models seemed to predict a much faster increase in ocean heat content over the last 30 years than was seen in observations," Hausfather said. "That was a problem, because of all things, that is one thing we really hope the models will get right."
"The fact that these corrected records now do agree with climate models is encouraging in that is removes an area of big uncertainty that we previously had," he said.
A fleet of nearly 4,000 floating robots drift throughout the world's oceans, every few days diving to a depth of 2000 meters and measuring the ocean's temperature, pH, salinity and other bits of information as they rise back up. This ocean-monitoring battalion, called Argo, has provided consistent and widespread data on ocean heat content since the mid-2000s.
Prior to Argo, ocean temperature data was sparse at best, relying on devices called expendable bathythermographs that sank to the depths only once, transmitting data on ocean temperature until settling into watery graves.
Three of the new studies included in the Science analysis calculated ocean heat content back to 1970 and before using new methods to correct for calibration errors and biases in the both the Argo and bathythermograph data. The fourth takes a completely different approach, using the fact that a warming ocean releases oxygen to the atmosphere to calculate ocean warming from changes in atmospheric oxygen concentrations, while accounting for other factors, like burning fossil fuels, that also change atmospheric oxygen levels.
"Scientists are continually working to improve how to interpret and analyze what was a fairly imperfect and limited set of data prior to the early 2000s," Hausfather said. "These four new records that have been published in recent years seem to fix a lot of problems that were plaguing the old records, and now they seem to agree quite well with what the climate models have produced."
Contacts and sources:
Ms. Jenny Lin
Institute of Atmospheric Physics, Chinese Academy of Sciences
University of California - Berkeley
Citation: How fast are the oceans warming? Observational records of ocean heat content show that ocean warming is Cheng, L., J. Abraham, Z. Hausfather, K. E. Trenberth, 2019: accelerating, Science, 363. doi: 10.1126/science.aav7619. in press