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Alarming new research has found that the Earth’s oceans are warming at a far higher rate than thought, an average of 40 percent faster than a United Nations panel estimated five years ago. Ocean temperatures have been consistently rising since the 1950s, absorbing more than 90% of the greenhouse gases in Earth’s atmosphere, and this continual warming will have consequences for the weather, sea level, marine ecosystems, fisheries, and ice sheets and glaciers.
The research found that records for ocean warming are broken each year, with a slow but sure increase in temperature. Ocean temperatures provide an accurate method of tracking global warming because they are unaffected by weather patterns. The ocean also mitigates the effects of global warming by absorbing greenhouses gases in the atmosphere, preventing land temperatures from rising dramatically. However, this is not sustainable, and the effects of rising ocean temperatures will become more prevalent.
Rising ocean temperatures can lead to longer, stronger, and more frequent hurricanes in the hurricane season, creating more destruction in coastal cities and island nations. Coastlines and coastal cities also become more susceptible to flooding during high tides, along with an increase in storm surges.
Warmer waters are also more harmful to coral reefs, which have been reduced by 20% in the world the last three years alone, in a process known as coral bleaching. Coral reefs are vibrant marine habitats and their death affects marine animal numbers, which in turn affect fisheries and food supplies for many people in coastal areas and in the tropics, many of whom rely heavily on seafood for nutrition. Kathryn Matthews, deputy chief scientist at Oceana stated that these populations will be “more quickly approaching food insecurity,” as a result of warmer oceans.
Entire marine ecosystems are also under threat from warmer oceans, as warming waters can affect marine life’s reproduction habits, food supply, and migration patterns. Additionally, warmer oceans contribute to declining oxygen levels in the ocean which can also negatively affect marine ecosystems.
Sea level rise is also a consequence of rising ocean temperatures, as warmer waters have more volume, which accounts for more sea level rise than melting polar ice, although ice caps and glaciers are now also melting faster. As a result, sea levels could rise 30 centimetres by 2100.
Data about rising ocean temperatures comes from Argo, a system of 3000 drifting floats that measures ocean temperatures and saline levels and sends this data back through satellites. Previous discrepancies in ocean warming measurements, including those of the UN Panel estimates, arose from uncertainties with 20th-century measurements which used different methods and equipment.
The ocean has long protected the Earth from the worst effects of global warming by absorbing greenhouses gases created by humans. However, this continual increase in ocean warming will continue to bring worsening consequences and slowing this warming by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is vital for all nations.