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Expand chart
Trends in ocean heat from 4 different observational datasets, compared to the CMIP5 computer model mean, from 1955 through 2017. Data: Cheng et al. Science, 2019; Chart: Lazaro Gamio/Axios.

New, independent observations from ocean buoys and other data sources show Earth's oceans are warming at a rate that's about 40% faster than indicated in the 2013 U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) report.

Why it matters: The study, published Thursday in the journal Science, resolves a key uncertainty in climate science by reconciling analyses from a variety of different scientific teams.

The oceans are absorbing about 93% of the extra heat going into the climate system. So far, most of that heat resides in the upper ocean, and is only slowly diffusing down into deeper waters. Faster warming is already resulting in tangible, harmful impacts, from coral bleaching across the Great Barrier Reef to rapidly intensifying hurricanes.

  • Scientists describe the ocean as having a "long memory," meaning that the heat going into the waters now will continue to be released long after humans cut greenhouse gas emissions (assuming we do take that course).

Be smart: The data from four different research groups now generally match the ocean heat content projections from the newest climate models, the study finds, which indicates that these models are accurately simulating the Earth's radiation budget.

  • “We can see the emergence of the signal of global warming much more clearly in ocean heat content,” says study co-author Zeke Hausfather, an energy systems analyst at the climate research group Berkeley Earth.
  • Hausfather says 2018 will be the warmest year on record for the Earth's oceans, beating the record set just last year.

How it works: Because the ocean's heat content doesn't vary as sharply as surface temperatures, it is considered a more reliable indicator of global warming.

The impact: Warmer oceans are already causing unprecedented back-to-back coral bleaching events, and are contributing to sea-level rise. They're also causing glaciers to melt from below in Greenland and Antarctica.

  • Warmer waters provide critical fuel for extreme storms, with studies showing ties between Hurricane Harvey's devastating deluge and warmer than average waters in the Gulf of Mexico, for example.

Why you'll hear about this again: The oceans are a main reason why climate change will not relent even if emissions were to cease today, since they will continue to release heat, and also greenhouse gases, over time. There are also implications for carbon removal technologies, which are getting more attention from scientists and investments from major oil companies.

Lost in much of the discussion on carbon removal, however, is the potential for the oceans to spoil the party.

“The climate system has a long memory," Hausfather says, “It doesn’t warm as quickly as it otherwise would and it’s a lot harder to cool it back down once it starts warming.”

  • The bottom line: "Just like the oceans buffer the rate of warming, they would also similarly buffer the rate of cooling in a world where we had net-negative emissions," Hausfather says.

He cited a 2016 study that showed it would take slightly more negative emissions to reduce warming than it takes positive emissions to increase temperatures.

Go deeper

2 hours ago - Health

CDC panel endorses Pfizer vaccine for 12- to 15-year-olds

Illustration: Brendan Lynch/Axios

An advisory panel for the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on Wednesday endorsed the Pfizer-BioNTech coronavirus vaccine for 12-to 15-year-olds, following the FDA's emergency use authorization.

Why it matters: Approval from the CDC panel was the final step needed before inoculations could be offered at any vaccination site for this age group.

  • Pfizer has said its vaccine is 100% effective at protecting against COVID-19 in a trial of more than 2,200 children between the ages of 12 and 15.

GOP lawmakers downplay Capitol riot at House hearing

Photo: Jon Cherry via Getty Images

Republican members of Congress sought to minimize the Capitol insurrection at a House hearing on Wednesday, with statements calling pro-Trump rioters "patriots" and other lawmakers falsely denying demonstrators were supporters of the former president at all.

Driving the news: The hearing comes shortly after House Republicans voted to oust Rep. Liz Cheney (R-Wyo.) from leadership over her criticism of former President Trump's actions leading up to and on Jan. 6.

McConnell, McCarthy say 2017 tax law is "red line" in infrastructure talks

The top Republicans in the House and Senate told reporters after meeting with President Biden at the White House that "there is a bipartisan desire to get an outcome" on an infrastructure package, but stressed that revisiting the 2017 tax cuts is a "red line."

Why it matters: Wednesday marked the first time that Biden has hosted Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) at the White House.