Climate infrastructure for the ocean
As the Biden administration attempts to secure an initiative to deal with the existential threat of climate change, it behooves them to consider the gaps in our understanding of the central element of the climate of the blue planet: the ocean.
Covering 70 percent of the globe, the ocean contains over 1,000 times the heat capacity of the atmosphere, 100,000 times as much water and 50 times as much CO2. It has absorbed over 90 percent of the heat of global warming, which has delayed the full impact of rising CO2 in the atmosphere for many decades.
The oceans are also the source of many of the most challenging threats of climate change; sea-level rise, more intense hurricanes and increasingly dangerous storms arising from higher moisture content. The oceans are the memory of the climate system and the ultimate source of all rainfall. New understanding of the varying patterns of ocean temperature and salinity is providing far superior forecasts of future climate than can be deduced from the chaotic atmosphere.
The oceans carry most of the world’s trade goods and provide a significant amount of protein for human consumption. However, decades of overfishing have depleted many natural fish stocks. An expanding population will require more protein from the sea, but we do not fully understand all the consequences of marine fish farming and aquaculture. Nor do we understand the threat of microplastic pollution to aquatic ecosystems.
The oceans have absorbed one-third of the CO2 emitted by the burning of fossil fuels, but rising temperatures are slowing the oceans’ physical solubility pump (like the bubbles in soda) and increasing the stratification. This is decreasing the supply of nutrients to the surface ocean and inhibiting the biological productivity that sequesters carbon and produces oxygen.
We need to understand if it’s possible to reverse this trend, since it would take only a .5 percent increase in the ocean CO2 content to cut atmospheric CO2 levels by one-fourth, thus restoring global temperatures to tolerable levels.
The changing oceans are clearly a problem for humanity, but if properly understood and managed they can be a large part of the solution to the climate change challenge.
However, for far too long the oceans have been ignored in the climate discussion and remain severely under-sampled. Too many long-term marine monitoring programs have been cut short or underfunded. A recent report from the National Academies of Science, Engineering and Medicine has outlined the need to better monitor the global ocean’s budgets for heat, water and carbon, as well as suggested funding and management schemes to take on this important challenge. An additional expenditure of $1 billion year in the U.S. is called for. This is a very modest investment compared to the trillions needed to overhaul our energy and transportation sectors. The reports provide a “shovel-ready” guide for a new investment in ocean research.
Climate change is an inter-generational problem, and we need to begin to invest now in the knowledge we need to convert the oceans from the principal climate threat to a primary climate change solution. This new effort is essential to observe, understand, predict and preserve the ocean we need for the climate we want.
Raymond W. Schmitt, Ph.D., is a physical oceanographer and Scientist Emeritus at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution and president and co-founder of Salient Predictions, Inc., which utilizes ocean data to make improved long-range weather forecasts. He has contributed to IPCC reports and the America’s Climate Choices Report from the National Academies of Science. He has developed new understanding of the global water cycle and recently won a rainfall forecasting contest for the U.S. West.
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