As we’re breaking records for high temperatures around the globe and watching forest fires blaze across the Northwest, you can thank the planet’s oceans for saving us from even hotter temps.
Because as humans have pumped carbon dioxide and other heat-trapping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, most of that additional energy has gone into the oceans, warming the water instead of the air.
“The oceans are really the flywheel of the climate system,” said Gregory C. Johnson, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). “They slow things down.”
Scientists estimate that over roughly four decades, 93 percent of global warming heat went into the ocean (the other 3 percent warmed the rocks and land, 3 percent melted glaciers, sea ice and other frozen water and 1 percent went into the atmosphere).
So where is all of that warmer water? Johnson and other researchers have some clues — and are hoping that a new project will tell them much more.
NOAA and Microsoft co-founder and philanthropist Paul G. Allen are launching cutting-edge, high-tech monitors in a project called Deep Argo that will explore conditions in the deepest stretches of the oceans, basins that can reach nearly 4 miles deep.
“Deep Argo will revolutionize deep ocean observing,” said Johnson, the project lead and a scientist at NOAA’s Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle.
In a rare public-private partnership, the philanthropy is donating $4 million to the effort. The organization is also providing free use of the Petrel, Allen’s research vessel. It’s the same ship that recently discovered the wreck of the World War II ship the USS Indianapolis more than 3 miles below the surface of the Philippine Sea.
Ocean scientists have a robust monitoring system for the upper ocean, which spans the surface down to about 2,000 meters, or 1.2 miles. Through the international Argo program, more than 3,770 floats worldwide are continually taking measurements used to track temperature, salinity and other conditions.
But data from deep in the oceans have mostly been collected on cruises conducted about once in 10 years beginning in the 1990s. That provided snapshots of information that was useful, but difficult for recognizing trends. Deep Argo can help change that.
The project will use new glass floats designed to withstand the extreme pressure experienced under the weight of miles of water. It takes one of the floats about a day to sink to the bottom of the ocean. It returns to the surface for only 15-30 minutes to send data to scientists via a radio satellite phone. Its buoyancy is controlled by adding or removing oil from an external bladder.
The researchers are going to test five of the floats in coming months before ordering an additional 28 if they work out. The new devices are a bit of a gamble.
“Traditional funders looked at this as risky,” said Spencer Reeder, director of climate and energy initiatives for Paul G. Allen Philanthropies.
Climate change is a key concern for Paul Allen and the philanthropy, Reeder said. An essential component to that interest is supporting research that will help scientists and others better understand the causes and effects of climate change.
“This was a natural fit,” Reeder said. “We have a different risk tolerance. We were able to come in and fill in this important data gap.”
If all goes well in the testing phase, the researchers will be deploying floats in the Atlantic Ocean off the east coast of South America into the Brazil Basin beginning in 2019. There are other deep floats in a few spots around the world, but the new deployments will double the number.
Once data are collected and verified as valid, the information will be released online for anyone to analyze.
“Given their importance, one would hope that we would have a more comprehensive ocean observation system than we do,” said Johnson, “but we’re making big strides.”
The oceans are not uniform and can have distinct layers of water of different temperatures, salinity and density. Researchers already know that the deep ocean water is warming in many places. Some scientists estimate that the volume of cold, salty water at the bottom of the Antarctic Ocean has been shrinking by 10 percent a decade since the 1990s.
“It’s pretty convincing to me, but not everyone is convinced by it,” Johnson said. “What I want to do is be able to nail down what is happening to the deep ocean temperatures and salinity around the globe.”
The Deep Argo research can help address numerous key climate issues including:
- How much heat can the oceans continue to absorb before more will go into the atmosphere, and how will that affect warming trends?
- How quickly is the deep ocean warming?
- How might the warming and changes in salinity affect currents that circulate the world’s ocean water, which also affects land temperatures?
- How much will the warming worsen sea level rise, given that warmer water is less dense and therefore takes up more space?
The grant and partnership are for a 3-year period, with the hope that the work can continue with other support.
“It is absolutely acting as a catalyst to demonstrate a new technology,” Reeder said.
The philanthropy is working on a variety of climate-related issued, including ocean acidfication, forest preservation and public policy. The organization has also partnered with the U.S. Department of Transportation for the Smart City Challenge, which aims to improve transportation and reduce pollution associated with travel.
When it comes to climate change, Allen “honestly views this as an existential threat,” Reeder said, “not only to humans, but iconic marine species and other species.”
The Trump administration has proposed dramatic cuts to climate-related research, including a $1.4 billion cut to the Department of Commerce budget, which includes NOAA.
“We started this project before the transition to the Trump administration. It wasn’t motivated by politics,” Reeder said. “We do try to remain above the [political] fray. We’re not tone deaf to what is happening, but our motivation is around the scientific need.”