The Oceans Are Warming Fast, and Our Lives Are About to Change

Vanishing coral reefs, intensifying hurricanes, rising seas — new studies confirm the toll of climate change



Climate deniers want you to believe otherwise, but the basic physics of climate science is as solid as the basic physics of gravity (or maybe even more solid, since the graviton, the elementary particle that mediates the force of gravity, still has not been detected). But there are plenty of unknowns in Earth’s climate system, such as exactly how much each ton of carbon dioxide we emit warms the atmosphere, or how different clouds can cool (by reflecting away sunlight) and warm (by trapping heat) the Earth. These uncertainties don’t mean that scientists don’t understand how burning fossil fuels cooks the planet. But it does mean there are still scientific nuances that could make the risks we face from climate change lower than scientists now anticipate – or higher.

Last week, an important uncertainty was resolved – and, like most news about climate change these days, it’s not a happy story. A paper published in the journal Science shows that the Earth’s oceans are warming at a rate that’s about 40 percent faster than indicated in the 2013 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report. Because the world’s oceans work like a giant flywheel, capturing heat energy and then spinning it out over time, warmer oceans have huge implications for everything from the rate of sea-level rise to hurricane intensity for generations to come.

During the last century, as the world heated up from pumping fossil fuels into the atmosphere, about 90 percent of the extra heat going into the climate system has been absorbed by the oceans. “If the ocean wasn’t absorbing as much heat, the surface of the land would heat up much faster than it is right now,” Malin L. Pinsky, an associate professor in the department of ecology, evolution and natural resources at Rutgers University, toldThe New York Times. “In fact, the ocean is saving us from massive warming right now.”

The ocean’s ability to absorb heat was no mystery to scientists. But what has been a mystery is that the ocean seemed to be warming more slowly than it should have been, given the climate models. This is important, because if a climate model can’t accurately capture the past, then it won’t be accurate predicting the future.

But actually measuring the heat content of the world’s oceans is not a small task. What matters is not just the surface temperature, which is relatively easy to calibrate, but also measuring the temperature as deep as 2,000 meters.