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Ocean temperatures were a driving force behind 2023's record heat

A recent study conducted by an international team of scientists from China, the United States, New Zealand, Italy, and France has shed light on alarming trends in global warming, with a particular focus on ocean temperatures. 

The comprehensive analysis confirms that 2023 was the hottest year on record, continuing a decade-long pattern where each year surpassed the previous in ocean heat levels.

The ocean’s role in climate

Covering 70% of the planet, the ocean is a crucial component of the Earth’s climate system. It absorbs about 90% of the heat generated by global warming, significantly influencing atmospheric conditions. A warmer ocean leads to a warmer atmosphere that holds more moisture, resulting in extreme weather patterns. 

Furthermore, the ocean plays a pivotal role in dictating the pace of climate change, making it a key focus for understanding future climatic shifts.

Data analysis 

The data, derived from two prominent research teams – the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IAP) at the Chinese Academy of Sciences (CAS) and the National Centers for Environmental Information of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) – present a concerning picture. 

The IAP analysis showed an increase in ocean temperature by 15 zettajoules compared to 2022, while NOAA’s findings indicated a slightly lower increase of 9 zettajoules. Despite these differences, both groups agree on the overall trend of ocean warming.

Understanding zettajoules

To put these figures into perspective, the entire global energy consumption annually is about half a zettajoule. Therefore, 15 zettajoules is an immense amount of energy – equivalent to the energy it would take to boil away 2.3 billion Olympic-sized swimming pools.

The discrepancy in data between IAP and NOAA has prompted further investigation. Early evidence suggests that the differences may stem from varying methodologies in data handling, particularly in quality control and the mapping of individual data points onto a global grid. In a warming climate, it’s possible that new high ocean temperature measurements could be mistakenly discarded.

“What this means is the warming might be greater than the numbers reported here,” explained study lead author Dr. Lijing Cheng from IAP/CAS.

Shifting ocean composition

The experts also noted shifts in rainfall and evaporation patterns, altering ocean salinity. These changes affect marine life and ocean currents. 

In addition, the increasing stratification of the ocean, where less dense, warm, and fresh waters remain near the surface, impedes the ocean’s ability to transport heat and carbon dioxide to deeper layers. This leads to reduced oxygen levels and a diminished capacity for carbon dioxide absorption, adversely affecting marine wildlife.

Warming oceans and extreme weather

A warmer ocean supercharges weather systems, contributing to more severe storms with heavier rainfall, stronger winds, and significant flooding. 

The economic and human costs of these events are staggering. In the United States alone, damages are estimated at approximately $200 billion per year.

These findings highlight the urgent need to halt the burning of fossil fuels and reduce carbon dioxide emissions. Transitioning to renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and hydropower is critical for decarbonizing the economy and mitigating the impacts of climate change. 

The study is published in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences

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