The oceans are warming faster than climate reports have suggested, according to a new synthesis of temperature observations published last week. The most recent report from the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change made what turned out to be a very conservative estimate of rise in ocean temperature, and scientists are asking us to adjust our expectations.
“The numbers are coming in 40 to 50 percent (warmer) than the last IPCC report,” said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric research and an author on the report, published in Science Magazine.
Furthermore, Trenberth said, “2018 will be the warmest year on record in the oceans” as 2017 was and 2016 before that.
Oceans cover 70 percent of the globe and absorb 93 percent of the planet’s extra heat due to climate change. They are responsible for spawning disasters like hurricanes Florence and Maria and generating torrential rainfall via meteorological processes with names like “atmospheric river” and “Pineapple Express.”
Sea level is rising and observable along the East Coast and around the world, both physically and financially. Trenberth and his colleagues say if society continues to emit greenhouse gas at its current rate, oceans rill rise 1 foot by the end of the century on top of the rise expected from land ice like Greenland and Antarctica.
Scientists have started to pin down how climate change is loading the dice on extreme weather. After Hurricane Harvey, researchers found the storm’s deadly and costly effects were likely made worse by warmer oceans. And, as The Washington Post reported in December, “a drought in East Africa that left 6 million people in Somalia facing food shortages was caused by dramatic ocean warming that could not have occurred without humans’ impact on the environment.”
After several studies published over the past couple of years, some of which included errors that needed to be corrected and published for the record, “we felt the need to do a more general assessment,” said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research and one of the authors on the study.
The scientists combined four datasets to paint a picture of what has been happening in the oceans since 1991. Trenberth and his co-authors say ocean heat content, which is a measure of the warmth of the water down to about 2,000 meters, is a “great metric for measuring global warming” because the data isn’t as noisy, and it captures much more of the planet.
Trenberth said they discovered their data agrees with what the climate models were predicting.
As the planet warms, models have proved invaluable. It’s not enough to say the climate is changing — scientists want to know how it is going to change in the future. Yet these models are one of the preferred targets of climate change skeptics. They appeared to miss the so-called “global warming hiatus” between 1998 and 2013. At the time, scientists posed there wasn’t really a hiatus, but that the heat was simply building up in the oceans, or that there was a data collection issue. That didn’t save the models from criticism.
This synthesis suggests the models are right. In fact, in the oceans, they are performing better than expected and have marched in lockstep with the extreme ocean heating observed by thousands of temperature-collecting floats all over the world. If climate models have actually performed well in the past, it gives scientists more confidence in their predictions for the future.
Looking forward, there are two scenarios scientists are working with. The low-emissions scenario the Paris climate change agreement was built around is no longer realistic, Trenberth said. The high-emissions, business-as-usual scenario will probably continue until about 2040,. “Yes, we need to try and stop emitting greenhouse gas. But the inertia is large,” Trenberth said. “Therefore the climate is going to continue to change.”