Without the oceans, we would be really screwed.
This is because the sprawling seas – some 321,003,000 cubic miles of them – soak up more than 90 percent heat trapped on Earth by human-made carbon emissions, who are still growing. This colossal heat absorption tempers the continuous atmospheric heating of the remote control, pale blue point we live.
“The ocean is delaying our punishment,” said Josh Willis, oceanographer at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory.
The amount of heat the oceans have absorbed over the past decade is hard to describe, if not imagine. The heat content of the ocean is measured in the most standard unit of energy, joules (using a 100-watt bulb for three hours consumes 1,080,000 joules). Between 2010 and 2019, the seas absorbed around 110,000,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules of energy.
To help capture this outrageous number, we’re going to need something big, so I converted the heat in the ocean into nuclear bomb blasts. More precisely, the most powerful nuclear bomb never exploded, Tsar Bomba. In a grandiose test, the Soviets dropped this 59,525-pound airship-shaped monster in October 1961, which released about 50 megatons of energy (that’s the energy produced by the explosion 50 million tonnes dynamite).
The conclusion: The ocean absorbed (roughly) the equivalent amount of energy released during the detonation of a tsar bomb every 10 minutes for 10 years.
(For reference, the atomic bomb that the United States dropped on Hiroshima on August 6, 1945 had the explosive force of 15,000 tonnes of TNT – so Tsar Bomba’s detonation was over 3000 times more powerful.)
The heat content of the oceans is constantly increasing.
An atomic bomb test in the 1950s in Nevada.
Credit: H. Armstrong Roberts / ClassicStock / Getty Images
Yes, that’s a ridiculous amount of energy. But the ocean is a ridiculously effective sponge. “The ocean is the greatest heat reservoir in the climate system,” noted Matthew Long, oceanographer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research.
“Water can store heat better than virtually any other substance in the universe,” added Willis.
“The ocean is delaying our punishment.”
Since the Industrial Revolution, the upper layers of the ocean have absorbed enough heat to warm up on average by just over 1 degree Celsius (1.8 degrees Fahrenheit), Willis said. This warming will continue, probably for a good part of the century, at least.
This is because the carbon levels in the earth’s atmosphere are the highest at least 800,000 years – although more likely millions of years. Civilization’s carbon emissions have to drop to zero for the Earth to even begin to cool down. It is an unprecedented challenge.
A French nuclear explosion on the island of Mururoa on October 30, 1971.
Credit: Michel BARET / Gamma-Rapho / Getty Images
Already, the warming of the oceans by mankind has led to significant and harmful disturbances of the seas.
“We are changing the basal metabolic state of the largest ecosystem on the planet,” Long said. “We are quickly pushing him out of control.”
Of note, higher water temperatures mean a reduction in the amount of dissolved oxygen in the ocean – which marine life relies on for breathe and see. Higher temperatures mean that the water generally contains less oxygen and other gases. In addition, surface waters (which are close to air and absorb oxygen) continue to absorb quantities of heat, creating a hot, rugged layer of water on top of the sea. This layer of water Excessively heated float is more resistant to mixing with the lower layers, depriving deeper-living animals of oxygen.
“The deoxygenation of the open sea is one of the major manifestations of global change”, notes a new International Union for the Conservation of Nature report on ocean deoxygenation.
These species disappeared in 2019
Even as civilization finds a way to limit the warming of the Earth this century to just 1.5 C (2.7 F) above the temperatures of the pre-industrial revolution – now an almost impossible feat – the oceans will warm again and continue to lose oxygen this century, the report concludes.
Most importantly, less atmospheric warming means less ocean warming. The company could very well miss the ambitious goals of 1.5 C or 2 C established by the UN, but there is still room to reduce emissions and perhaps get closer to those warming targets, even though the United States has frankly relinquished its climate leadership and effectively left (for now) the international effort to reduce emissions.
“We have to start turning around now to achieve these goals,” Long said.
The ship has not yet turned around.