climate change

We’re Boiling the Ocean Faster Than We Thought

Lone turtle swims barren coral reef damaged by coral bleaching caused by global warming. Photo: Rainer von Brandis/Getty Images

One year ago, the Intergovernmental Panel for Climate Change (IPCC) declared it “extremely unlikely” that humanity would overcome its dependence on fossil fuels in time to keep global temperatures from exceeding the threshold set by the Paris Agreement.

Since then, scientists have discovered that Antarctica is melting faster than they’d realized; that global carbon emissions are rising faster than expected; and, now, that the world’s oceans are heating up more rapidly than the IPCC had assumed.

Specifically, the ocean is warming 40 percent faster than the United Nations panel had previously estimated, according to a study published in Science Thursday.

In 2014, the IPCC compiled five separate measurements of oceanic temperatures — all of which came in lower than the levels projected by computer-generated climate models. The newly published analysis suggests that this disparity was partially attributable to flaws in the historical record of ocean temperatures: Three recent studies that accounted for the biases inherent to the instruments used to measure ocean temperatures in previous eras all produced estimates of warming that were higher than the IPCC’s, and thus, more in line with what computer models had predicted.

The implications of this finding are not swell. Current levels of ocean warming have been sufficient to devastate coral reefs, fuel exceptionally rainy storms and hurricanes, and burden coastal cities with more frequent flooding; while the discourse about sea-level rise focuses on the threat posed by melting ice caps, warming waters have been the primary driver of the sea-level increases that we’ve seen thus far (when water heats up, it expands).

Nevertheless, the researchers believe that their findings do not suggest that all is lost — only that it will be (a bit sooner than we realized) if policy changes aren’t enacted.

“I think there’s some reason for confidence that we’ll avoid the worst-case outcomes,” Zeke Hausfather, a co-author of the study, told the New York Times, “even if we’re not on track for the outcomes we want.”

We’re Boiling the Ocean Faster Than We Thought