Record high temperatures in 2016 have set the year on track to be the hottest year on record, the third consecutive year to break the record.
All of this extra heat in the atmosphere needs to be absorbed and dissipated through some medium. Most of the heat that is trapped in our atmosphere by the increase in greenhouse gases is absorbed by the ocean.
Water is one of the most important fluids that exists on our Earth. It is the universal solvent, allowing all of life’s most important chemical reactions to take place. Its use extends beyond just the biological world and into the industrial world. The radiator in your car uses a water-based coolant because of one of water’s important characteristics, a high specific heat capacity.
Heat capacity is the number of joules required to raise the temperature of a body by one degree Celsius. In other words, it is a value which describes the ability of a substance to absorb heat. A greater heat capacity means that a substance can absorb more heat without changing its temperature. Likewise, a substance with a lower heat capacity requires the absorption of less heat to raise the temperature of the substance by the same amount.
It takes 4.184 joules of heat to raise the temperature of water by one degree Celsius. Compared to other substances, water has a high heat capacity. For example, it takes 0.385 joules of heat to raise one gram of copper by one degree Celsius. Water has an amazingly large capacity to store heat. It is this property of water that helps it to absorb excess heat in our atmosphere.
Over at least the last three decades the average temperature of the ocean has been steadily rising, a trend that is predicted to continue over the next several decades unless we alter our use of energy. Gregory Johnson, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, NOAA, has said that over the last several decades more energy has been absorbed by the Earth than the energy emitted at the top of the Earth’s atmosphere. A majority of this excess heat is then taken up by the ocean.
The excess energy absorbed by the ocean has led to several effects. First, as the temperature of the ocean rises, it causes the glaciers near the poles to melt. This results in an increase in global sea levels. Also contributing to the rise in global sea levels is the resulting thermal expansion that the ocean undergoes from absorbing all of this excess energy. It is estimated that thermal expansion accounts for roughly one-third of the increase in global sea levels.
Additionally, the alterations in ocean temperature may result in the bleaching of coral species and a general risk to many marine species. As the temperature increases, coral reefs may die out as they undergo a process called bleaching. Other species, like the comb jellyfish, are expanding their territories and seasons.
This has damaged many fishing industries, especially in the coastal northeastern United States.
Overall we need to make a change. Our nation as a whole must come together to push for cleaner energy sources. Cutting back on energy waste and use is a top priority if we hope to prevent a major climate event. Even though the ocean has a large capacity to absorb heat, it is not without consequences. The time to act is now, before it is too late.