Wednesday, January 20, 2016

Climate Sea Changes

We live on land--so we're obsessed with the impacts of the climate crisis on land areas, or at least the interaction of water, especially sea levels, and land.

But the biggest potential threat to humanity has always been the effects of global heating on the oceans.  We know very little about that.  The oceans are worlds in themselves, as ecosystems and other phenomena inhabit various depths, for instance.

We've known that the oceans--covering 3/4 of the planet--have been absorbing most of the heating--up to 95%.  A new study starts quantifying that:

Gleckler is the lead author of a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change finding that, in the past two decades, ocean heat content has been rising rapidly and that, much more than before, heat is also mixing into the deeper layers of the ocean, rather than remaining near the surface.

The Washington Post story goes on to conclude:

The consequences of upper-ocean warming are well documented. From the bleaching of corals to the potential for more-intense hurricanes, a warmer surface has profound consequences for anything living in the oceans (this is where most sea life is) but also on land. Heating the ocean also raises sea levels, because warm water expands.

The consequences of warming the middle and deepest layers are less clear and less immediate to those of us living at the surface, but they are also sure to be significant. The new study provided a global overview of increasing ocean warming, rather than any specific prediction of regional consequences. But warming the deep ocean could lead to changes in its circulation, Gleckler said.

Ocean circulation is a powerful driver of global climate.  Other weather-makers that begin in the oceans include hurricanes and the big daddy of the day, El Nino.  In an article tracking changes in the oceans over the past generation, Forbes begins by noting new research that concludes: While we can’t say that climate change causes El Nino, the evidence is mounting that the warming of our planet could be intensifying the natural phenomenon, which in turn can lead to some extreme weather events.

What we apparently don't know is the effects on ocean life, which is another existential threat.  We do know humans have been overfishing for decades, and yet another study says it's worse that we thought.  Partly through cynical manipulation of data, the amount of overfishing has been grossly underestimated, and as a consequence the quantity of fish being caught in recent decades has declined more than reported.

This means there is less resilience out there that previously believed, as the consequences of global heating play havoc with sea life.  That's apart from the effects of pollution, of huge dead zones and floating countries of garbage.   Millions of people depend on seafood, and ultimately we all do.  We've felt it locally in the US as species that used to be plentiful have all but disappeared.  As other easy sources of land-based protein become unsustainable (and unhealthy), we're growing more dependent on the oceans.

The effects of global heating on the oceans is still being determined.  On land, the effects are easier to see.  They finally were visible to the economists and others who gathered for the annual World Economics Forum in Davos, Switzerland.  Just last year there was a book of articles by various economists looking ahead a hundred years.  Few of them even mentioned the climate crisis as influencing the future.  But this year, a survey of 750 experts named climate change disasters as the biggest potential threat to the global economy in 2016.

So what's behind this change?  Nothing particularly has happened, other than the steady acceleration of accumulated disasters, requiring massive spending that rarely enters political discourse.  Maybe it's a psychological change.

Psychology itself is suddenly getting interested in the climate crisis, in the comical way today's psychological establishment does.  So far they think denial has something to do with it (big insight there), although they do come up with some fascinating examples: people so deep in denial that they contradict themselves within minutes.

Nobody wants to believe this is happening.  We all wish it weren't, and we'd all like to hide from it as long as we can.  But at certain point the weight of evidence and argument shifts the conventional wisdom, and what's acceptable, and accepted: a sea change.  This seems to be happening with the climate crisis.  Better late than never, maybe.

P.S./Update: The numbers are in and to no one's surprise, 2015 was the hottest year on record.  The newsworthy evidence though is that it was the HOTTEST year on record.  

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