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‘Alarming’ study: Oceans heating at a rapid pace

© Ian Schneider

Editor’s note: Two weeks after this study was published, the authors submitted corrections to their findings, acknowledging errors in their calculations. While the main premise of the study stands — that oceans are absorbing more heat each year — the figures that the team reported were found to be inaccurate, greatly increasing the margin of error of their findings.

Mistakes, corrections and transparency are part of the scientific process, and in that same spirit of transparency, we are leaving this post online.

The amount of heat accumulated by the oceans in recent decades may be much higher than originally thought, according to a study published this week.

Earth’s oceans, the study’s authors reported, have absorbed 60 percent more heat per year than realized.

The findings, published in the journal Nature, could have troubling implications for the “carbon budget,” the maximum amount of carbon that humans could emit into the atmosphere and still keep global average temperatures below an increase of 2 degrees Celsius.

If the findings are accurate, they are “alarming,” said Will Turner, a scientist and senior vice president of global strategies at Conservation International and who was not involved in the study.

“To put these findings in perspective, think about the total energy in all proven fossil fuel reserves around the world,” he said. “Our oceans are absorbing that much extra energy every three years.”

Notably, the new research measured the ocean’s temperature not directly but by measuring the oxygen and carbon dioxide emitted by the ocean as it has warmed in recent years. This novel approach resulted in higher levels of warming being detected.

More research, Turner said, will be needed to support these new findings, but in any case, the study underscores the threat of unabated carbon emissions on the ocean and the climate.

“If other studies back this up, that means that the direct impacts of warming oceans are likely to be worse: more intense hurricanes, faster sea-level rise, worse damage to coral reefs,” he said. “But that heat will move before long from the oceans to the atmosphere, which means that we have more work to do, in less time, to stop global warming.”

“Ironically, this result from the oceans points us increasingly to solutions on land. The pace at which we must act means it’s even more important that we protect and restore forests and other high-carbon ecosystems, which can provide 30 percent or more of the change in greenhouse gas emissions we need to avoid the most dangerous climate change.”

Bruno Vander Velde is the editorial director for Conservation International.

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