It has been known for some time that local bodies of water play a crucial role in moderating a region’s climate. The water is able to absorb heat during the warmer months and give off heat during the cooler months, ensuring that the local environment does not venture into extremes. However, is this localizing effect also applicable for the world at large?
Recent studies have shown that deep regions of the Pacific Ocean are warming at an unprecedented rate. The absorbed heat from the surface can be transported to deeper layers on the ocean, allowing the ocean to store vast amounts of heat for long periods of time.
The global effect of a warming ocean is similar to the local effect of a warming body of water. Although global surface temperatures are on a rise, their rate of increase is significantly slower than anticipated, and is likely be due to the moderating effects of the ocean.
For Yair Rosenthal of Rutgers University, the lead author of the study, these findings change very little about our current environmental crises. She admits that this storage effect “may buy us some time,” but is unsure how much time is left before even the oceans become too warm.
Rosenthal is only one of many climate scientists who are concerned with the lack of strong political change in the face of global warming. The leveling off of surface temperatures – despite much larger changes to weather and climate – has lead some politicians and researchers into a false sense of security.
“Surface temperature is only one indicator of climate change,” said Drew Shindell, a climate scientist working in Columbia University. He states that other indicators, such as glacier melting, water vapour in the atmosphere, and snow cover are also useful when looking at “the total energy stored by the climate system.”
Of course, there are other concerns alongside the hidden effects of climate change through heat absorption. According to Dr. Linsley, another climate scientist in Columbia University, “We’re experimenting by putting all this heat into the ocean without quite knowing how it’s going to come back out and affect the climate.” The concern here is that ocean warming may have serious, but currently unseen, effects. While it may help us right now by moderating the rise of temperatures, the warming of the ocean could itself be another major problem down the line.
It seems that the ocean has taken a lot of abuse from humans in the last century. Overfishing has already resulted in the mass destruction of many fish populations. The mass pollution of the oceans through chemicals, plastic, and garbage is also impacted the quality of our oceans. Ocean warming, it seems, is one more way we are taking advantage of an important environmental resource. Let’s just hope it’s not too late to make a change.