Climate Change

The world’s oceans have a two-way relationship with weather and climate. The oceans influence the weather on local to global scales, while changes in climate can fundamentally alter many properties of the oceans. Below are some key points by the US Environmental Protection Agency regarding climate change in relation to our oceans.

Ocean Heat

When sunlight reaches the Earth’s surface, the world’s oceans absorb some of this energy and store it as heat. This heat is initially absorbed at the surface, but some of it eventually spreads to deeper waters. Currents also move this heat around the world. Water has a much higher heat capacity than air, meaning the oceans can absorb larger amounts of heat energy with only a slight increase in temperature.

Key Points:

  • In three different data analyses, the long-term trend shows that the oceans have become warmer since 1955.
  • Although concentrations of greenhouse gases have risen at a relatively steady rate over the past few decades, the rate of change in ocean heat content can vary from year to year. Year-to-year changes are influenced by events such as volcanic eruptions and recurring ocean-atmosphere patterns such as El Niño.


Sea Surface Temperature

Sea surface temperature—the temperature of the water at the ocean surface—is an important physical attribute of the world’s oceans. The surface temperature of the world’s oceans varies mainly with latitude, with the warmest waters generally near the equator and the coldest waters in the Arctic and Antarctic regions. As the oceans absorb more heat, sea surface temperature increases and the ocean circulation patterns that transport warm and cold water around the globe change.

Key Points:

  • Sea surface temperature increased during the 20th century and continues to rise. From 1901 through 2015, temperature rose at an average rate of 0.13°F per decade.
  • Sea surface temperature has been consistently higher during the past three decades than at any other time since reliable observations began in 1880.
  • Based on the historical record, increases in sea surface temperature have largely occurred over two key periods: between 1910 and 1940, and from about 1970 to the present. Sea surface temperature appears to have cooled between 1880 and 1910.
  • Changes in sea surface temperature vary regionally. While most parts of the world’s oceans have seen temperature rise, a few areas have actually experienced cooling—for example, parts of the North Atlantic.

Sea Level

As the temperature of the Earth changes, so does sea level. Temperature and sea level are linked for two main reasons:

  1. Changes in the volume of water and ice on land (namely glaciers and ice sheets) can increase or decrease the volume of water in the ocean.
  2. As water warms, it expands slightly—an effect that is cumulative over the entire depth of the oceans.

Key Points:

  • After a period of approximately 2,000 years of little change, global average sea level rose throughout the 20th century, and the rate of change has accelerated in recent years. When averaged over all of the world’s oceans, absolute sea level has risen at an average rate of 0.06 inches per year from 1880 to 2013. Since 1993, however, average sea level has risen at a rate of 0.11 to 0.14 inches per year—roughly twice as fast as the long-term trend.
  • Relative sea level rose along much of the U.S. coastline between 1960 and 2015, particularly the Mid-Atlantic coast and parts of the Gulf coast, where some stations registered increases of more than 8 inches. Meanwhile, relative sea level fell at some locations in Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. At those sites, even though absolute sea level has risen, land elevation has risen more rapidly.
  • While absolute sea level has increased steadily overall, particularly in recent decades, regional trends vary, and absolute sea level has decreased in some places. Relative sea level also has not risen uniformly because of regional and local changes in land movement and long-term changes in coastal circulation patterns.

Ocean Acidity

The ocean plays an important role in regulating the amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. As atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide rise, the ocean absorbs more carbon dioxide. Because of the slow mixing time between surface waters and deeper waters, it can take hundreds to thousands of years to establish this balance. Over the past 250 years, oceans have absorbed about 28 percent of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities that burn fossil fuels.

Key Points:

  • Measurements made over the last few decades have demonstrated that ocean carbon dioxide levels have risen in response to increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to an increase in acidity (that is, a decrease in pH).
  • Historical modeling suggests that since the 1880s, increased carbon dioxide has led to lower aragonite saturation levels in the oceans around the world, which makes it more difficult for certain organisms to build and maintain their skeletons and shells.
  • The largest decreases in aragonite saturation have occurred in tropical waters; however, decreases in cold areas may be of greater concern because colder waters typically have lower aragonite saturation levels to begin with.