The world’s oceans have been set to simmer, and the heat is being cranked up. Last year saw the hottest ocean temperatures in recorded history, the sixth consecutive year that this record has been broken, according to new research.
The heating up of our oceans is being primarily driven by the human-caused climate crisis, scientists say, and represents a starkly simple indicator of global heating. While the atmosphere’s temperature is also trending sharply upwards, individual years are less likely to be record-breakers compared with the warming of the oceans.
Last year saw a heat record for the top 2,000 meters of all oceans around the world, despite an ongoing La Niña event, a periodic climatic feature that cools waters in the Pacific. The 2021 record tops a stretch of modern record-keeping that goes back to 1955. The second hottest year for oceans was 2020, while the third hottest was 2019.
“The ocean heat content is relentlessly increasing, globally, and this is a primary indicator of human-induced climate change,” said Kevin Trenberth, a climate scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado and co-author of the research, published in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences.
Warmer ocean waters are helping supercharge storms, hurricanes and extreme rainfall, the paper states, which is escalating the risks of severe flooding. Heated ocean water expands and eats away at the vast Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets, which are collectively shedding around 1tn tons of ice a year, with both of these processes fueling sea level rise.
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