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2017 Was the Hottest Year on Record for Oceans
Last year wasn't just one of the hottest years on Earth's surface, as it was the hottest year on record for the global ocean, according to a new study from the Institute of Atmospheric Physics (IAP)/Chinese Academy of Science.
Researchers Lijing Cheng and Jiang Zhu found that the top 2,000 meters of ocean waters are hotter than ever recorded, at 19.19 × 10^22 J. Heat energy is measured in Joules (J).
That's quite the jump from 2015, the previous record-breaking year for ocean heat, which was recorded at 17.68 × 10^22 J.
"For comparison," the study states, "total electricity generation in China in 2016 was 0.00216 × 10^22 J, which is 699 times smaller than the increase in ocean heat in 2017."
Ocean heat in 2016 was cooler than both 2015 and 2017 due to a large El Ninõ event that year, which takes heat out of the ocean. As thermal sciences professor Dr. John Abraham explained in the Guardian, "During an El Niño, the Pacific Ocean tends to have very warm waters at the surface, which causes heat loss to the atmosphere (so the ocean cools and the atmosphere warms). Conversely, during a La Niña, the reverse process occurs."
Despite the 2016 drop, the last five years were still the five warmest years in the ocean on record.
- 2017: 19.19 × 10^22 J
- 2015: 17.68 × 10^22 J
- 2016: 17.18 × 10^22 J
- 2014: 16.74 × 10^22 J
- 2013: 16.08 × 10^22 J
This chart makes the rise in ocean heat since the 1950s much more clear.
Change in global upper-level (0–2000 m) ocean heat content since 1958. Each bar shows the annual mean relative to a 1981–2010 baseline. The final bar on the right shows the 2017 value. Reliable ocean temperature records date back to 1958. IAP ocean analysis.
The study, published Friday in the journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, determined that the increase in ocean heat content for 2017 occurred in most regions of the world, with the Atlantic and Southern oceans showing more warming than Pacific and Indian oceans.
The research highlights how measuring ocean heat is key to tracking the impacts of climate change:
"Owing to its large heat capacity, the ocean accumulates the warming derived from human activities; indeed, more than 90 percent of Earth's residual heat related to global warming is absorbed by the ocean. As such, the global ocean heat content record robustly represents the signature of global warming and is impacted less by weather-related noise and climate variability such as El Niño and La Niña events. The year 2016 was cooler than both 2015 and 2017 owing to the huge El Niño, which took some of the heat out of the ocean. According to the IAP ocean analysis, the last five years have been the five warmest years in the ocean. Measurements of ocean heating are a more reliable indicator than atmospheric measurements for tracking the vital signs of the health of the planet."
Abraham, who was not involved in the study, described the findings as "truly astonishing" and noted that the consequences of ocean heating could include declining oxygen levels in the oceans, coral bleaching, and the melting of sea ice and ice shelves that cause sea level rise.
"The consequences of this year-after-year-after-year warming have real impacts on humans," Abraham said. "Fortunately, we know why the oceans are warming (because of human greenhouse gases), and we can do something about it. We can take action to reduce the heating of our planet by using energy more wisely and increasing the use of clean and renewable energy (like wind and solar power)."
The Chinese study underscores that how the oceans' health—and the health of its creatures—are greatly impacted by human activities.
"The likelihood of disease increases from 4 percent to 89 percent when corals are in contact with plastic," the researchers reported.
The researchers estimated that more than 11 billion plastic items are currently littered in coral reefs in the Asia-Pacific region alone. If plastic consumption does not change, the total number could rise to 15.7 billion items by 2025.
"Plastic is one of the biggest threats in the ocean at the moment, I would say, apart from climate change," Dr. Joleah Lamb of Cornell University said.
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By Tracy L. Barnett
Sources reviewed this article for accuracy.
For Sicangu Lakota water protector Cheryl Angel, Standing Rock helped her define what she stands against: an economy rooted in extraction of resources and exploitation of people and planet. It wasn't until she'd had some distance that the vision of what she stands for came into focus.
Last week, the Peruvian Palm Oil Producers' Association (JUNPALMA) promised to enter into an agreement for sustainable and deforestation-free palm oil production. The promise was secured by the U.S. based National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in collaboration with the local government, growers and the independent conservation organization Sociedad Peruana de Ecodesarrollo.
The rallying cry to build it again and to build it better than before is inspiring after a natural disaster, but it may not be the best course of action, according to new research published in the journal Science.
"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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