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Ocean Warming Off the Charts

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The oceans of the world set a new heat record in 2023, the sixth straight year that temperature records have been broken. According to scientists, the temperature in 2023 surpassed the record set in 2022 by .5 degrees Fahrenheit. According to Professor John Abraham of St. Thomas University in Minnesota, this was due to both climate change and a strong El Niño. In an interview on the PBS Newshour, Abraham estimated that half of the warming is due to climate change and about 30 percent is due to the El Niño. About 20 percent, in his estimation, is due to an unknown factor.

The chart below was developed by Professor Abraham and his team. It shows the rise in the oceans’ heat energy in zettajoules. A zettajoule is a unit of heat with 21 zeros after it, or 1,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules. What is depicted here are not actual temperatures but the INCREASE in heat energy in the oceans over time. To give you a better idea of the scale that we are dealing with here, consider this. All of the energy used annually by all the people in the world—all of it—adds up to one-half of a zettajoule. As I stated at the beginning of this article, scientists reported that in one year ocean temperatures rose by .5 degrees Fahrenheit. Half a degree. That might not seem like much, but think about how vast the oceans are. To make them rise one-half degree in one year takes a tremendous amount of heat energy. Compare a tea kettle filled with cold water to a bathtub of cold water. How much more energy would it take to heat up that tub of water as compared to the tea kettle?

Human activity is producing the excess heat that is being absorbed by the oceans. How are humans accomplishing this huge climate-altering feat? As most folks know it’s by pouring huge amounts of greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere, principally carbon dioxide and methane: cars, trucks, trains, airplanes, ships, home and building heaters and cooling systems, manufacturing processes, extractive industries, agriculture, landfills, etc. Like a greenhouse, these gasses trap heat in our atmosphere and warm the planet accordingly.

Professor Abraham points out that 90 percent of this excess heat is absorbed by the oceans. Global warming, then, is mostly ocean warming. Professor Abraham points out, “The amount of heat we are putting into the oceans is equivalent to about five Hiroshima atom bombs of energy every second.” That’s right—EVERY SECOND!

What are the effects of this much ocean warming? We’ve seen it all around the world. More violent storms, deadly flooding, major die-offs of coral reefs, and destruction of other sea life. Arctic and Antarctic ice is melting, and sea levels are rising, endangering coastal communities and threatening, in the not-too-distant future, to submerge major urban areas along the coastlines of the world.

What to do? When you find that you’ve dug yourself into a hole, the best way to begin getting out of your fix is first to STOP DIGGING!

So we need to STOP putting carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere. Of course, we won’t be able to stop in an instant, but we have to begin somewhere. The nations of the world have pledged to cut back. The Biden Administration has pledged that the U.S. will reduce greenhouse gas emission by 50 percent to 52 percent by 2030 and reach net zero by 2050. It has put significant money behind its pledge.

This is a good start for the U.S., one of some 180 nations in the world. There are other large emitters such as China, and the EU. They have made pledges as well. Then there are the less developed nations, nations that don’t have the technology or expertise of the more advanced nations. How can they be enlisted in the fight?

Professor Abraham sees hope mainly in the younger generation – in leaders like Greta Thunberg. Certainly, the younger generation has the greatest stake in getting control of this challenge. But it’s a mighty challenge. There can be so many demands and distractions in a person’s life.

This fight is going to take passion, but even more, it’s going to take persistence. As Paul Hawken points out in his book Regeneration, we’re going to need everyone in the fight - every nation and every generation. Moreover, we won’t be successful unless we also address the basic needs of all humanity. We cannot achieve environmental justice without social justice.

As we are doing the right thing by the climate, at the same time we must do the right thing by each other. This includes the more advanced nations helping the less advanced nations deal with the effects of climate change. After all, the so-called advanced nations have emitted far more greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere than the less-developed nations. We need to consider seriously how our expanding economies in the developed world have been shrinking the natural world – really killing the natural world. Can we not learn something from our brothers and sisters in the world who may lead less materialistic lives than we? I think it’s something we need to consider.

Ron Prosek is the Treasurer and Co-Founder of FaCT.

]Abraham, John. “Oceans are as hot as humans have known them, and we’re to blame.” The Guardian. [https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2020/jan/13/oceans-are-as-hot-as-humans-have-known-them-and-were-to-blame ]

The PBS Newshour, March 19, 2024. Interview with Professor John Abraham of University of St. Thomas in Minnesota. [ https://www.pbs.org/newshour/show/march-19-2024-pbs-newshour-full-episode ]

Hawken, Paul. Regeneration: Ending the Climate Crisis in One Generation. Penguin Books, 2021. [ https://regeneration.org/ ]


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