Research showing steeper increases in ocean heat is not exactly new. So what’s up with all those headlines?

By Tom Yulsman | January 11, 2019 7:52 pm

There’s been good evidence that the oceans were heating up faster than thought. Now, scientists have fitted the puzzle pieces together.

The trend in the amount of ocean heat is shown for the period 1993 to 2015. Yellow, orange and red tones show locations where ocean heat has increased. (Source: Cheng, Lijing & NCAR. Last modified 10 May 2017. "The Climate Data Guide: Ocean temperature analysis and heat content estimate from Institute of Atmospheric Physics." Retrieved from https://climatedataguide.ucar.edu/climate-data/ocean-temperature-analysis-and-heat-content-estimate-institute-atmospheric-physics.)

The trend in the amount of heat in the oceans is shown for the period 1993 to 2015. Yellow, orange and red tones show locations where ocean heat has increased. (Source: Lijing Cheng & NCAR. Retrieved from https://climatedataguide.ucar.edu/climate-data/ocean-temperature-analysis-and-heat-content-estimate-institute-atmospheric-physics.)

So this morning, as I’m drinking my coffee and perusing news headlines, I see this in the New York Times: “Ocean Warming Is Accelerating Faster Than Thought, New Research Finds.”

The story was about a new paper published Thursday in the journal Science titled, “How fast are the oceans warming?”

This is a big deal, because human-caused global warming doesn’t affect just the land surface. In fact, more than 90 percent of global warming’s heat is absorbed in the oceans. That has helped prevent much steeper increases in temperature on land.

But all that heat going into the oceans isn’t really a benign phenomenon. By causing ocean waters to expand, it contributes to sea level rise. The heat also can make storms more destructive, and it’s putting enormous stress on ocean ecosystems — which we depend on heavily for food.

And in the long run, what goes into the oceans doesn’t all stay in the oceans. Heat eventually comes out of the water to contribute to warming atmospheric temperatures around the globe.

So knowing exactly how much heat is going in is very important. With that in mind, I checked out other stories about the new paper in Science, and I saw that many featured similar headlines as the N.Y. Times.

More about the scientific paper in a minute. But first, I have to say that I realized I had seen very similar headlines before. Just this past October, for example, I saw this in Scientific American: “The Oceans Are Heating Up Faster Than Expected.” According to the story, a “new study published yesterday in the journal Nature concluded that the global oceans may be absorbing up to 60 percent more heat since the 1990s than older estimates had found.”

And nearly two years ago, the Washington Post ran this headline: “The world’s oceans are storing up staggering amounts of heat — and it’s even more than we thought.”  That was based on a study published in the journal Science Advances. In a press release about it, study co-author Keven Trenberth of the National Center for Atmospheric Research was quoted as saying that “the planet is warming quite a lot more than we thought.”

Hmmm. Two years ago we already knew that the planet was warming quite a lot more than we thought. So what’s up with today’s headlines, which seem to suggest that we didn’t know this?

For quite awhile now, scientists have actually had good reasons to believe the oceans have been taking up more global warming heat than was estimated in a major report in 2014 from the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. And more recently, research has been confirming those suspicions.

If you read beyond the headline and down into that New York Times story — which actually is quite good — you’ll see that the new paper isn’t at all a research article presenting a major new advance. It’s actually an assessment based on previous original research of the state of knowledge about rising ocean heat content, or “OHC,” as scientists label it. And as the assessment concludes, “Multiple lines of evidence from four independent groups thus now suggest a stronger observed OHC warming.”

Based on a lot of the coverage I encountered today, you might easily conclude that the new assessment produced dramatic new findings. But the findings have actually been piling up for a few years — as have those headlines, some of them quite dramatic. Now, the authors of the new assessment have pulled multiple strands of previous research together to provide a clearer picture of what’s currently known.

That picture shows that the oceans are heating up 40 percent faster than what the U.N. report estimated. And things are getting increasingly worse. As Trenberth, one of the authors, put it in an email to me today, “There are clear signs of acceleration.”

The better estimates of how much global warming heat is going into the oceans is based in part on new ways of piecing together data from different sources. Since the early 2000s, accurate data have been provided by a modern network of floating ocean heat sensors, called the Argo network. But prior to that, information was collected by less accurate sensors called expendable bathythermographs.

Because of inaccuracies, the data from the older sensors contained biases. Thanks to recent research, scientists have found ways to deal with this issue, providing a better picture of just how much more heat the oceans have been sopping up compared to the past.

The picture has also been improved by new ways of dealing with another vexing issue: In the past, larger portions of the oceans went unmonitored than today. “The oceans are not well observed as we go back in time,” notes Trenberth.

In the past, scientists tried to deal with this using various strategies for filling the gaps. But these tended to produce overly conservative estimates. More recently, satellite observations and computer modeling have helped improve estimates of  what has been going on in largely unmonitored areas of the oceans.

And still other researchers have analyzed ocean factors that are influenced by ocean temperature to derive independent estimates of how the ocean’s store of heat  has changed over time.

Overall, the estimates derived by these studies are in line with what climate models have been saying. The models have tended to indicate more ocean warming than what had been observed, and that discrepancy had given fodder for critics of climate change science. But now, Trenberth and his fellow authors say that discrepancy is largely gone.

One of the sobering conclusions of the new assessment is the likely consequences of failing to get off the business-as-usual scenario of high emissions of heat-trapping greenhouse gases. Model projections — which we now know have been line with observations — show that the likely amount of ocean warming “would have major impacts on ocean ecosystems and sea level rise through thermal expansion,” the scientists write.

When you combine estimates of thermal expansion with projected sea level rise from melting glaciers and ice sheets, you come up with numbers that “portend very bad consequences for many coastal regions,” Trenberth told me in an email message.

My point in writing all of this today is to point out that if you pay too close attention to headlines, you might get the impression that science happens in discrete bursts of dramatic new research findings. In fact, most of the time, research progresses incrementally, with different groups of scientists probing at a particular issue independently and often in different ways. One study usually doesn’t provide definitive insight into a phenomenon. It takes multiple findings — and sometimes a group of scientists fitting those puzzle pieces together — to produce a clearer, convincing picture.

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  • Mike Richardson

    A good summary of the scientific process, and how research based on accumulating data gets presented to the public. “Skeptics” of climate change driven by human activity often argue that models of warming don’t later match observations. They’re right, only to the degree that unfortunately they have tended to be too conservative, as scientists don’t want to overestimate the effects based on the data they have at the time. As more data becomes available, and more factors are considered, the models are revised. The worrisome thing about this is that means our current rather dire outlook may also be too conservative.

    • michael hart

      You mean they are wrong now, but you are still confident they are going to be right in the future?

      • Mike Richardson

        Science is never static. Knowledge is revised based on new data, and opinions should be as well.

  • Patrick Nelson

    Yes indeed research does show that ocean’s warmed as much as they are warming now back about 252 million years ago.

    The warming ocean waters’ were caused by global warming when the atmospheric CO2 level rose to the 400s ppm levels because of heavy volcanic activity… All of that is according to studies by the famous geologist and paleontologist Dr. Michael J. Benton and his associates.

    Dr. Benton wrote in his book, “When Live Nearly Died”, that the ocean waters’ warmed to the point it killed off the ocean life from the coral reefs to the green plants phytoplankton and then almost all life on Earth died from a lack of oxygen… That was because the ocean’s green plant life produced most of the planet’s oxygen, just like it does now.

    Now a repeat of what happened near 252 million years ago has begun with the warming ocean waters’ and the dying ocean life starting with the ding coral reefs and they are dying fast… At the rate of their dying almost all of the coral reefs will be dead by 2023, five more years.

    I for one, believe the issue isn’t covered enough by the press.

  • 9.8m/ss

    Your point is well taken, Tom. The commercial consumer-facing mass media exist to drive eyeballs to advertisements, and that problem compels publishers to compose sensational headlines and overemphasize “the latest study.” But “the latest” study is the one that hasn’t been around long enough for the post-publication critiques to shake out. And “the latest study” that overturns all the research that went before is almost always seriously flawed. “The latest study” matters most when after months or years nobody found any substantial errors, and independent research corroborates the findings. And the very rare latest study that overturned everything, when it’s survived years of critique and collected some corroboration, will be recognized not as just another “latest study” but as a real breakthrough.

    Opponents of science will jeer, “Groupthink! Pal review! Lysenkoism!” as they allege corroboration and critique are evidence of political corruption in science. The groupthink argument makes sense, I suppose, if you don’t know scientists well enough to understand their motivations, and you don’t know enough about scientific careers and the grantmaking process to expect its built-in resistance to bias to actually work pretty well.

  • Dave Raines

    As is hinted at, the major problem these days in reporting scientific research or principles lies often with the chain of reporting and publishing. Reporters and editors no longer have the background or expertise to give accurate and full interpretation of such things. They may read an abstract, or even some other reporter’s write-up, and think they have the story. Faced with a blizzard of data, terminology and no time to get expert interpretation, they fly with what they think they know. Headlines are written and story placement is given to emphasize the most controversial or lurid possible interpretation.

    And as long as we’re talking headlines, the headline to this story is, in itself, misleading. It could easily give the quick or surface reader (as the vast majority of news readers are today) the impression that something has been hidden or falsified, since so much of the partisan, tabloid and “citizen journalist” content is pushing that now.

    Pet peeve alert. Starting a sentence or thought with “so,” when not used in its conjunctive or adverbial sense, is today’s equivalent of “um” or “like,” and even worse in written form.

    • Tom Yulsman

      My use of ‘so’ is a bad habit that I can’t seem to kick. So, I will try to do better. 😉 As for the headline, try your hand at writing one for this piece. It needs to grab readers’ attention while staying true to the facts and the essence of the story. So, uhm, come on now, give it a try!

  • Lorie Franceschi

    Okay, I agree that the earth is warming up and that humans may or may not be accelerating this change (don’t get on me what I believe, we all have our own opionin on What and why it is happening). What would really like to know is why we went from global cooling (we were supposed to be in an ice age now because of some tree ring study in Siberia), to global warming (because the tree rings were not read correctly or the scientist said they faked their information), to climate change. Is it because scienctists are trying to be political correct or they just changing what they saying because of their information? Isn’t global warming and climate change, the way it is being used in this sense, the same thing? Wouldn’t it be better to use global warming to try to get people’s attention than climate change? Warming or change?

    • Dave Raines

      As you have noted, theories that are widely reported seemed to have changed over the years. There are two factors at work. One is that research is always trying to refine or question earlier work. Another is that scientific research is open to cherry-picked reporting to further agendas or to create shocking headlines to garner more readers or viewers.

      And the trend from “global warming” to “climate change” reflects how the factors mentioned above were being used to skew and flavor the research. Taken as a global whole, there is “global warming.” That overall warming comes when many systems are looked at together, even if there are higher temperatures in one place or system and lower in others. Taken together, the trend is higher.

      “Climate change” is the result of “global warming” and is what is most meaningful to the average person – higher highs, lower lows, droughts, floods, fires and stronger storms. Deniers were pooh-poohing the concept of global warming whenever a big cold weather event occurred, even when that event was related to global warming.

    • Tom Yulsman

      Ms. Franceschi: Thank you for reading the story and taking the time to comment here. I appreciate it. Concerning your comments, something to think about: It’s true that in the 1970s, some scientists published studies theorizing that we could be entering into another ice age. But many more papers were published contradicting that idea — on the basis that increasing concentrations of greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere would cause much more warming than any natural cooling that might occur. By the time I wrote my first story on climate change — in 1983, 36 years ago — that question was largely settled. Evidence was emerging that the climate was warming, and research showed pretty convincingly that it would continue on that trend unless we reduced emissions of greenhouse gases. (This is, actually, a matter of simple physics.)

      Concerning the issue of “global warming” versus “climate change,” people like to put a political spin on this. But scientifically, it’s quite simple: Global warming is the increase in the average temperature of the globe over time due to heat building up in the climate system from greenhouse gas increases; climate change refers to the myriad changes this extra energy causes. For example: more frequent and intense heat waves, and heavier downpours. (Both of which have been well documented.) For whatever reason, this simple scientific point has become highly politicized.

      Bottom line: The climate is changing. There is no denying that. Whether you want to accept humankind’s role in that is up to you. But I think we both can agree that we should be talking about how to adapt to changes that are already under way, and that will continue. But people can’t even seem to have a rational, civil discussion about that. Because the issue of climate change has become proxy for a much bigger political war. This is so unfortunate, because human lives literally are on the line.

      • Lorie Franceschi

        I do believe that man is helping with climate change, especially since the beginning of the industrial revolution, but what about Earth’s natrual cycle of cooling and warming? Studies that I have read is that Earth is coming out of its last ice age. So with the melting of the last of the ice, would that not mean we are starting into a warming spell? I know that man puts a lot of green house gases out there, but the ice has been melting for several thousand years. There was enough ice to build a “ice” bridge between what we call Russia and Alaska today. That bridge started melting and was long gone before humans started the industrial revolution in England. I do believe as I stated at the beginning, that man contributes to climate change, but not as much as people think. If we stopped everything that man puts into the atmosphere today, Earth would continue to warm for thousands if not millions of years and then begin its cooling cycle again.
        As for the political side of things, I believe that pockets are being lined

        • Tom Yulsman

          Thanks for coming back to discuss this. And something to consider: Earth was in a cooling phase and may well have been heading back into an ice age before warming really kicked in at about 1970. This has been very well documented. The impact of our greenhouse gas emissions began to overcome the natural cooling. So, we’ve probably avoided an ice age — a good thing. But we need to stop while we’re ahead! 😉

  • cv

    The popular media and scientists, themselves often dramatize their results to get attention. The reality is predictions are difficult because the models are nonlinear and chaotic, and mitigation will be thwarted by entropy. No one, not even the most ardent climate change believer, wants to do what it takes to simply try to control the process. We need to reduce population by about 90%, and that’s not going to happen. We need nuclear power, everywhere, and breeder reactors. Unfortunately, Entropy says you can do everything right, and end up at the bottom, having wasted all your resources. Entropy always wins.

    • okiejoe

      Some one should begin serious development of Thorium cycle power reactors. They seem to have great potential with fewer flaws than Uranium cycle reactors but not enough is research has been done to see if they are an answer to the power problem.

  • Occasional-Cortex

    And the solution is?

    Convince China and India to stifle their economic growth with the political instability that would follow. Sure.

    Just for our needs, cover an area larger than the state of Vermont with solar panels (Elon Musk’s estimate) with the accompanying massive increase in grid infrastructure. How much will that cost, how will it affect utility bills and the economy?

    It’s one thing to describe the problem. What do you propose we do about it? What’s the economic cost and effect?

    Starting with the main producers of greenhouse gasses: China and India’s billions of people trying to climb into the middle class.

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ImaGeo

ImaGeo is a visual blog focusing on the intersection of imagery, imagination and Earth. It focuses on spectacular visuals related to the science of our planet, with an emphasis (although not an exclusive one) on the unfolding Anthropocene Epoch.

About Tom Yulsman

Tom Yulsman is Director of the Center for Environmental Journalism and a Professor of Journalism at the University of Colorado, Boulder. He also continues to work as a science and environmental journalist with more than 30 years of experience producing content for major publications. His work has appeared in the New York Times, Washington Post, Audubon, Climate Central, Columbia Journalism Review, Discover, Nieman Reports, and many other publications. He has held a variety of editorial positions over the years, including a stint as editor-in-chief of Earth magazine. Yulsman has written one book: Origins: the Quest for Our Cosmic Roots, published by the Institute of Physics in 2003.

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