Earth’s oceans are storing record-breaking amounts of heat

Pandemic-related shutdowns may have spared Earth’s atmosphere some greenhouse gas emissions last year, but the world continued to warm.

Water temperature measurements from around the globe indicate that the total amount of heat stored in the upper oceans in 2020 was higher than any other year on record dating back to 1955, researchers report online January 13 in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences. Tracking ocean temperature is important because warmer water melts more ice off the edges of Greenland and Antarctica, which raises sea levels (SN: 4/30/20) and supercharges tropical storms (SN: 11/11/20).

Researchers estimated the total heat energy stored in the upper 2,000 meters of Earth’s oceans using temperature data from moored sensors, drifting probes called Argo floats, underwater robots and other instruments (SN: 5/19/10). The team found that upper ocean waters contained 234 sextillion, or 1021, joules more heat energy in 2020 than the annual average from 1981 to 2010. Heat energy storage was up about 20 sextillion joules from 2019 — suggesting that in 2020, Earth’s oceans absorbed about enough heat to boil 1.3 billion kettles of water.

This analysis may overestimate how much the oceans warmed last year, says study coauthor Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist with the U.S. National Center for Atmospheric Research who is currently based in Auckland, New Zealand. So the researchers also crunched ocean temperature data using a second, more conservative method for estimating total annual ocean heat and found that the jump from 2019 to 2020 could be as low as 1 sextillion joules. That’s still 65 million kettles brought to boil.

The three other warmest years on record for the world’s oceans were 2017, 2018 and 2019. “What we’re seeing here is a variant on the movie Groundhog Day,” says study coauthor Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Penn State. “Groundhog Day has a happy ending. This won’t if we don’t act now to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.”

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