Oceans absorbing 10 atomic bombs worth of heat every second: Study

Oceans warmed to record levels in 2020.

Oceans warmed to record levels in 2020. Supplied: Grant Thomas, The Ocean Agency

The world’s oceans absorbed 20 sextillion joules of heat due to climate change in 2020 and warmed to record levels, a study has found.

That quantity – expressed numerically as 20,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules – is equivalent to the energy from 10 Hiroshima atomic bombs being released every second of the year.

Report co-author Kevin Trenberth, from the US National Centre for Atmospheric Research, said oceans absorbed more than 90 per cent of the solar energy trapped by greenhouse gases.

“There’s a tremendous amount of energy that’s actually involved in this – it’s not surprising that it has consequences,” he said.

“Since about the mid-1990s, at least, the oceans have been warming very steadily.

A graph showing the rising temperature of the world's oceans.

The mercury has been rising steadily since the 1990s. Graph: Kevin Trenberth

Danger by degrees

The study came as scientists confirmed that global air temperatures in 2020 were equal to 2016 – the hottest on record – and as Australia experienced its fourth hottest year on record.

“The ocean is a key controller of the climate that we see on the continent of Australia,” CSIRO oceanographer Bernadette Sloyan said.

She said warmer oceans could lead to increases in extreme weather.

A heat map of Australia showing the temperature of the oceans.

The seas to the north-east of Australia (yellow and red) are warmer than average because of La Niña. Photo: Earth.Nullschool.Net

“That heat is actually providing the fuel that can bring in monsoons, rains and tropical cyclones,” Dr Sloyan said.

“That’s because the oceans have the heat and will slowly release it back to the atmosphere and impact weather and severe weather events.”

She said increased heat was also directly affecting ecosystems like coral reefs.

“Corals live within a really small temperature range,” Dr Sloyan said.

“Once we exceed those temperature ranges – and if we exceed them for long periods of times – we have significant coral bleaching.”

A scuba diver swims over a bleached coral reef.

Coral bleaching is a direct result of increased ocean temperatures. Photo: The Ocean Agency

Simmering south-east

Australia’s south-east has been identified as an ocean surface warming hotspot, according to Jessica Benthuysen, an oceanographer with the Australian Institute of Marine Science.

“We’ve had a number of dramatic marine heatwaves in the Tasman Sea over the past five years, including in 2016,” she said.

“That was the longest, most intense marine heatwave on record – and that was associated with a shift in fish species and Pacific Oyster Mortality Syndrome for the first time.”

A map showing the temperatures of the seas around Australia.

Sea surface temperatures to the south-east of Australia are increasing at twice the global average. Graph: Bureau Of Meteorology

In its State of the Climate 2020 report, the Bureau of Meteorology said the average sea surface temperature in the Australian region had warmed by more than one degree Celsius since 1900.

Eight of the 10 warmest years on record have occurred since 2010.


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