Climate change is making the oceans hotter MUCH faster than we expected

  • Published on July 7th, 2017

The problem with news reporting on climate change science is: The scientific models are inherently conservative, but they get reported as if they were worst-case scenarios. Often, as with ocean temperatures and Antarctic warming, the more we learn the WORSE things look, making those earlier estimates into BEST-case scenarios…

By Steve Hanley oceans warming rapidly by CHENG Lijing

Oceanographers say the world’s oceans are heating up faster than expected. They warn that higher ocean temperatures will have a significant impact on global warming and climate change. Lots of people, many of them senior political leaders in the United States, dismiss climate scientists as nerds who worship data and care not a fig for the needs of business. Chances are, most of them would plead guilty to that charge because absent data, there is no science. However, the needs of businesses are also inherently tied to a livable climate and human society, and they understand that as well.

The Oceans are temperature buffers

The earth is like a giant terrarium. If it gets too hot, species die. If it gets too cold, species die. The oceans act as a temperature buffering system. They can absorb enormous amounts of heat and sequester it for decades, centuries, or even longer. If the atmosphere gets too hot, some of that excess heat gets absorbed by the seas. If the atmosphere cools, some of that heat is given up again to stabilize temperatures.

You chemistry majors out there will remember that a buffer can operate over a wide range of conditions to stabilize a chemical reaction, but once its limits are exceeded, all hell breaks loose. That’s what has climate scientists concerned. A new study says ocean temperatures are rising much faster than expected, signalling that the oceans’ ability to buffer global temperatures may be in danger.

Monitoring oceans is difficult

But gathering accurate data about the seas is difficult. If you cut down a tree, its rings will reveal a wealth of information about climate conditions during its lifetime. But the trackless ocean has no such reference points. Prior to 2005, most temperature readings of ocean waters were taken by the British Navy. Their technique was to throw a bucket overboard, haul it back on deck, then stick a thermometer in it. That was great for recording surface temperatures but disclosed nothing about conditions at deeper levels.

During World War II, the British suspended their measurement program. The US Navy took over but recorded its measurements differently. It used hull-mounted sensors instead. Suddenly, significant differences in the data were noted, causing alarm in the scientific community. As it turned out, the hull sensors were near the ships’ engines and heat from the engines warmed the water near the hull.

In 2005, the ARGO system of electronic temperature buoys was deployed, giving scientists their first consistently reliable data. But those buoys were often dropped from cargo ships and so they tend to be concentrated along shipping lanes. The ARGO system now consists of some 3,800 autonomous buoys that report their data regularly via satellite. They are more uniformly distributed in the world’s oceans and record temperatures at different depths, giving scientists a more complete picture of condition in the oceans.

Scientists must be careful to eliminate what is known as “sensor bias” from their findings. Different teams of scientists also can interpret the data differently, which gives climate deniers an opening to challenge all scientific findings as nothing more than opinions. That allows them to say their opinions are just as valid, even though they posit the world is precisely 3,500 years old, that humans once walked among dinosaurs, and the sun revolves around the earth.

New study shows ocean temperatures rising

A new study published in the journal Climate Dynamics looks at ocean temperature data from three different sources. Each analysis reaches somewhat differing conclusions about the actual temperature of the oceans but they all agree on one thing — ocean temperatures are going up and the rate of change is faster than anyone realizes.

John Abraham was one of the scientists who participated in the study. He points out the differences the three groups report in their findings, but says “the central fact is that regardless of how you measure, who does the measurements, when or where the measurements are taken, we are warming.”

More research neededocean temperatures 2017

Abraham advocates for more and better monitoring of ocean temperatures in order to better understand the data, acknowledging that information provided by the ARGO network is relatively recent and requires quite a lot of statistical interpretation. “We recommend a comprehensive evaluation in the future for the existing ocean subsurface temperature datasets. Further, an improved ocean observation network is required to monitor the ocean change: extending the observations in the boundary currents systems and deep oceans (below 2000 meters) besides maintaining the ARGO network.

“In plain English, it will be important that we keep high quality temperature sensors positioned throughout the oceans so in the future we will be able to predict where our climate is headed. We say in science that a measurement not made is a measurement lost forever. And there are no more important measurements than of heating of the oceans.”

Abraham and his colleagues will have to look beyond the United States for logistical and financial help. President Tweet doesn’t care a flying fig leaf about the oceans or the environment and won’t until Mar-A-Lago disappears beneath the waves.


(Originally appeared at our sister-site, Cleantechnica.) 

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writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island. You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.