Oceans have absorbed more heat than previously thought, study finds

Christopher Davidson
November 4, 2018

Scientists know that the ocean takes up roughly 90 percent of all the excess energy produced as the Earth warms, so knowing the actual amount of energy makes it possible to estimate the surface warming we can expect, said co-author Ralph Keeling, a Scripps Oceanography geophysicist and Resplandy's former postdoctoral adviser.

By measuring atmospheric oxygen and Carbon dioxide for each year, scientists were able to more accurately estimate how much heat oceans had absorbed on a global scale.

"Imagine if the ocean was only 10m deep", said Laure Resplandy, assistant professor of geosciences at Princeton and lead study author.

The study suggests Earth's oceans might be more sensitive to emissions from fossil fuels than first thought. But Resplandy said the new findings in her report show that avoiding a future "Hothouse Earth" scenario will be even harder than anticipated.

What can we do to slower the rate of global warming?

The scientists say worldwide policymakers have so far failed to make intact ecosystems an explicit target for conservation, such zones risk disappearing completely. Argo is an worldwide program that uses profiling floats to observe temperature, salinity, currents, and, recently, bio-optical properties in the Earth's oceans. What's more, the Argo floats don't track much of what happened before 2007. They measured ocean heat by looking at the combined amount of O2 and Carbon dioxide in air, a quantity they call "atmospheric potential oxygen" or APO.

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The team analyzed oxygen levels in the ocean and carbon dioxide (CO2) at three locations in the lower, middle and upper part of the Earth: the tip of Tasmania in Cape Grim, La Jolla, California, and Alert, Canada, only 800 kilometres from the north pole.

"The uncertainty in the ocean heat content change estimate is still large, even when using this new independent method, which also has uncertainties", said Thomas Froelicher from the University of Bern, Switzerland. In addition, they tracked 25 years of data, from 2016 to 1991.

This week has brought more evidence on several fronts of the damaging effects of climate change, along with calls from scientists for the world to act urgently to protect oceans and wilderness areas. This is 60% higher than indicated in previous studies.

The UN report found that the planet will reach the crucial threshold of 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels by as early as 2030, precipitating the risk of extreme drought, wildfires, floods and food shortages for hundreds of millions of people. For example, the marine ecosystem will be affected by warmer waters and many species could disappear.

Despite that, the researcher said that it is not a reason to lose hope, but that the findings should serve to duplicate efforts to save the planet. According to Dr. Resplandy, we must reduce the carbon emissions from our activities with 25% more than we initially believed.

Oceans warming faster than we thought, "fish refugees" seeking cooler waters, wilderness areas that may vanish altogether - and even a warning that the traditionally moderate British weather is getting more extreme.

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