Although 2019 was only the second hottest year on record for the Earth’s atmosphere, it turns out that it was the hottest for a major portion of the planet that we tend to forget about: the world’s oceans. The oceans have absorbed the brunt of the heat being trapped at the surface of the planet by global warming—an estimated 93 percent of that excess heat—at a rate comparable to several nuclear bombs being detonated in every second.

“If you look at the ocean heat content, 2019 is by far the hottest, 2018 is second, 2017 is third, 2015 is fourth, and then 2016 is fifth,” explains Kevin E. Trenberth, a senior scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research. Trenberth was part of a research team studying the effect of global warming on the world’s oceans.

In 2019, the global average temperature for the planet’s oceans was recorded at 0.075°C (0.14°F) above the above the 1981-2010 average. While this mightn’t seem like a drastic change compared to the roughly 0.6°C (1.1°F) seen in the atmosphere over the same 24-year period, seawater can hold over four times the amount of heat energy that the same volume of air can; combined with the sheer volume of the world’s oceans—covering over 70 percent of the Earth’s surface at an average depth of 4 kilometers (2.5 miles)—a 1°C change in ocean temperature would translate to a 1,000°C change in the atmosphere. In other words, if the ocean hadn’t absorbed all that energy, the Earth’s surface would have warmed by an unsurvivable 75°C (135°F) over just the last quarter-century.

The amount of excess heat energy being stored in the oceans is massive enough to have to be described not in gigajoules or terrajoules, but in zettajoules (ZJ, sextillions of joules, or 1 with 21 zeros behind it): according to the study, the planet’s oceans had 228 ZJ more heat energy in 2019 than the 1981-2010 average, and had added a full 25 sextillion joules since the year before.

“The Hiroshima atom-bomb exploded with an energy of about 63,000,000,000,000 Joules,” according to lead study author Lijing Cheng, an associate professor at the International Center for Climate and Environmental Sciences at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. “I did a calculation … the amount of heat we have put in the world’s oceans in the past 25 years equals to 3.6 billion Hiroshima atom-bomb explosions.” According to Cheng, this equates to roughly 4 of these “Little Boy” bombs detonating every second since the mid-90s.

But that rate of warming is speeding up—and fast. “We are now at five to six Hiroshima bombs of heat each second,” explains study co-author John Abraham, a professor of mechanical engineering at the University of St. Thomas.

This ocean heating has already started affecting life on the surface, in the form of extreme weather events being fueled by global warming, including this season’s ongoing Australian bushfires. And the impact on life in the oceans goes without saying: rising temperatures means lower oxygen levels and more acidic water, putting undue environmental strain on an incalculable number of aquatic species.

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10 Comments

  1. Do you really think climate change is caused the atmosphere or the planet itself heating up from the inside out? We’ve had different climates before we may make a small difference but I think it’s the earth changing.

    1. Not likely. It’s very clear that human caused greenhouse gas emissions are responsible for the bulk of warming we’ve seen and projected. Pre-industrial levels of carbon dioxide were about 280 ppm (for 10,000 years), now we’re at 410 ppm+ and rising by 3 ppm per year, a big jump. Back in the last ice age it was about 180 or so ppm, so 100 ppm does make a big difference, only now we’re on the ‘hot side’ of normal. And that’s before you factor in methane and other gases. Together with destruction of the carbon sinks in forests and oceanic plankton, it’s not surprising that humanity is responsible.

      1. What credible science are you basing your comments on? Your statements are based on what has been dubbed, “bureaucratic science”. A term that fits political agendas but has nothing to do with reality. That a change in climate is a fact has nothing to do with human activity. The heating of the oceans is a result of submarine volcanism, particularly in the Pacific. If one were to hold a heating element above the surface of a given volume of water, only a slight change in water temperature over a long period of time would be apparent. But immerse that same heating element within that container of water and the difference would be quite noticeable. NASA has even stated that “global warming” has nothing to do with human activity. Further, all the planets within our solar system are heating up. This suggests an external source (?) that’s responsible for increased changes on the planets and an increase in seismic activity in all its variations on the Earth. Do the research and don’t parrot the assertions of know-nothing politicians or their submissive scientists who are only interested in saving their government-paid jobs. RM

        1. Speaking as someone who has done the research and has never been content to parrot anybody, I have to call bullshit on literally every point you made in that post.

          Basically, reverse each and every statement in that post and they become factual.

          But, I have to assume that, like me, you’re well read on the subject, and have reviewed the numbers and did the math yourself, so I’d like to see your sources for all of your assertions—perhaps there’s some crucial piece of information that I’m missing? Something tells me that these sources will simply be know-nothing politicians and the the few submissive scientists that are only interested in saving their fossil fuel-paid jobs.

      2. Not just that. There is the factor of deforestation for materials and permafrost erosion for fair mammoth tusks. Everytime a nuclear weapon is ignited, that enrgy warps the magnetosphere. During the warping, gamma and x ray emissions from the sun get through. The increasing trash and pollutants in the ocean retards the reflective affect of the oceans, therefore absorbing energy and, in the process, also insulates the ocean.

    2. No, I don’t think that climate change is an effect produced in the atmosphere: I know it is an effect produced in the atmosphere. I know this because I regularly investigate and prepare articles regarding the subject for Unknown Country, and the sheer mountain of evidence illustrating this is impossible to ignore. I also periodically investigate the alternative causes that are proposed, and none of them hold water.

      The interior of the planet is not heating up; it is, in fact, slowly cooling, and there is no known mechanism for extra energy of that magnitude to be introduced into the Earth’s interior without that energy having to first pass through the atmosphere–meaning the atmosphere (and the hydrosphere) would be boiled away long before the ground could impart any meaningful amount of heat back into the air.

      The Earth’s interior only accounts for 0.03% of the planet’s energy budget at the surface, with the other 99.97% coming almost entirely from the Sun. Geothermal heat would have to have increased by roughly 2,000% over the last few decades for it to account for the 1°C increase that’s currently being observed, and you can bet your bippy that geologists would be screaming blue bloody murder if something that drastic were to be happening to the planet.

      Yes, the climate has seen drastic shifts in the past, and those shifts were (presumably) natural and not man-made. But those drastic shifts were always the result of major asteroid strikes or massive super-volcano activity, and I have it on good authority that none of these events have happened in the past few centuries.

      To reiterate (yet again): There are only three factors that correlate in this situation: (1) human civilization has emitted over 1,480 billion tons of carbon dioxide–a laboratory-demonstrated greenhouse gas–since the start of the industrial age; (2) atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide have risen by over 50% in that same time period, levels that are unprecedented over at least the past 800 millennia; (3) in that same time period the global average temperature has increased by at least 1.1°C (1.98°F).

      All other natural factors–combined–are either too small or occur over too long a time period to account for the sheer magnitude of this energy imbalance. Meaning that all of these alternative explanations are fairy tales. This crisis is entirely man-made. The science is settled. The debate is done. Anyone telling you otherwise is either too heavily invested in this fairy tale to let their (unfounded) beliefs go, or they’re being paid by the fossil fuel industry to parrot their propaganda.

      1. Matthew, excellent and very informative post! Keep up the great work covering climate change for Unknown Country.

  2. That’s it Ace! Global warming- preposterous! What about all those silly people that think the Earth is spherical and that milk is from Cows!

  3. The total amount of water on earth is only 0.02% of its mass. Despite that it covers a little over 71% of the earths surface. The atmosphere is only 0.0003% of the earths mass. Water at sea level is 784 times denser that air. Both air and water are natures way of correcting heat imbalances. Heat energy is absorbed by many different ecosystems as well. So we aren’t doing any ourselves any favours knocking down forests. Heat arriving from the sun is the main engine that drives life on earth and of course the weather and climate. The ice covered areas like Greenland and Antarctica would be like heat sinks, heat energy is absorbed and lost as ice melts. The entire mass of the earth needs to be in radiative equilibrium. This means heat coming from the sun, other cosmic rays and what is being produced in the earth needs to be lost back into space over the course of a 24 hour period. Most of this loss occurs when it is night time. This is called radiative equilibrium. A natural balancing act of the heat exchanges on the Earth. N.A.S.A admitted in 2005 that we are no longer in radiative equilibrium. Planet Earth, was holding onto close to One watt of heat energy per square meter. So in a square km you have one million square meters. So For that 1km2 area, close to a million watts of radiant heat energy that is not lost or absorbed over a period of 24 Hr. The Earth has 510.1 million square km of surface area. It’s a big sum. It’s a big problem. Things are going to keep getting worse until we address the problem of global warming. Also N.A.S.A has never released any more data on the radiative equilibrium problem for 15 years. If they did its probably going to be far worse.

  4. Never ceases to amaze me that at this too late date with data pouring in from all quarters anyone could deny global over heating is taking place! Let us stop shaming, blaming and pull together to save what and who is willing to be saved. Then that would require most of us to agree that we are a singular human species on the only home world that is currently available.

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