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The impact of a warming ocean, even decades after stopping pollution cold turkey | Bradon's Barometer

Even if we stopped emitting 100% of carbon dioxide today, the oceans would warm the atmosphere for decades.
Credit: WPMT FOX43

PENNSYLVANIA, USA — So, you haven't seen the ocean level rise and engulf coastal Florida like you remember scientists warming about for years. You use that to say, "See? They don't know what they're talking about. Global warming isn't real."

First, that's not exactly right. In fact, after unveiling last year, new community events are being held this very weekend with the Manhattan Beach Restoration Project in Los Angeles County, California. Their goal —  save their beach. Not because they've already seen it begin to be taken back into the Pacific due to beach erosion, but rising water levels. 

Second, again: still not quite right. The oceans serve as a major concern, perhaps the penultimate concern when it comes to climate change. It stores so much more energy than land. So while we witness more extremes in drought and precipitation on land, we have yet to even scratch the surface of the energy stored in the oceans, due to higher carbon dioxide levels and warming temperatures.

Earth requires balance, or equilibrium. It'll always find it someway, somehow, at some time. Right now, we haven't found it yet: that's what's concerning.

"We aren't emitting as much energy back into space as we're receiving from the sun," Dr. James Kinter, III —  the director for the Center for Ocean-Land-Atmosphere Studies at George Mason University said. "Most of that energy is winding up in the ocean."

You see, water has a higher heat capacity than land. Heat capacity is the amount of energy needed to warm an object. Because of that, more and more energy from the sun is being stored in the oceans. And as a result, it will absorb energy for a long time before it comes into equilibrium.

"The ocean has been warming for decades, since the end of the 19th century," Dr. Kinter said. "The warming is reaching deeper and deeper depths."

Water from the ocean is used as fuel in just about everything in the atmosphere. Snow storms, everyday rainfall events, hurricanes and tropical storms. If that ocean water is warmer, it has more energy and more capability to produce higher amounts of precipitable water (amount of water to potentially be used in a storm system). So as the ocean warms, the higher the likelihood for stronger weather events.

And because the ocean temperatures are warming deeper and deeper, the supply is growing. And as the supply grows, the balance becomes more and more offset. 

"Even if we were to go back to the Stone Age tomorrow and stop emitting carbon entirely, the ocean would keep warming up [until it reaches equilibrium]," Dr. Kinter said. As it continues to provide warmth to the atmosphere, the atmosphere would continue to warm up until the whole system comes into equilibrium, and that could take several decades."

And as the overall temperature warms up, we continue to grow more concerned over ice sheets in Antarctica and Greenland. There, we need more research to see just what's occurring as a result of warming ocean temperature. But, warm water temperatures underneath the Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica are feared to speed up the melting of the Florida-sized piece of ice, which would drastically affect sea level rise across the globe.

Today, we sit near a few tenths of a meter of sea level rise this century without that glacier breaking off.

"But suppose the West Antarctic Ice Sheet is already unstable. Then by the end of the century, if all that ice were to disappear, the sea level wouldn't rise by a few tenths of a meter," Dr. Kinter said. "It would rise by two meters. No Florida Keys, no Outer Banks, Miami Beach, even Baltimore would have issues with sea level rise." 

Two meters is about six feet. 

Now, if the Thwaites broke off alone, it wouldn't cause two meters of rise immediately. But, over time it could, according to scientists at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES).

"It’s doubled its outflow speed within the last 30 years and the glacier in its entirety holds enough water to raise sea level by over two feet," said Ted Scambos, a senior research scientist at CIRES. "And it could lead to even more sea-level rise, up to 10 feet, if it draws the surrounding glaciers with it.”

All of this is directly tied to the oceans. So while we already examine the impact we're seeing on land and the ocean temperature, remember it will still warm for decades even if we stopped emitting carbon dioxide cold turkey. The question is, what happens as we continue to do so for an unspecified amount of time?

Until next time,

-Chief Meteorologist Bradon Long  

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