Effects of global warming on oceans
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Global warming can affect sea levels, coastlines, ocean acidification, ocean currents, seawater, sea surface temperatures as well as depths, tides, the sea floor, weather, and change entire climates. All of these affect the functioning of a society.
- 1 Sea level
- 2 Ocean currents
- 3 Ocean acidification
- 4 Weather
- 5 Sea floor
- 6 Predictions
- 7 See also
- 8 References
- 9 Further reading
- 10 External links
Global warming in the last century has increased sea levels worldwide, though there are regional variations; see sea level rise. Although global warming has affected the volume of seawater in all of the world’s oceans, it is important to look at the change in sea level in particular coastal areas, especially throughout short periods of time (fifty to one hundred years). In order to estimate the rise in global seawater level, scientists combine sea level trends at tidal stations around the world.
There are a number of factors affecting rising sea levels, including the thermal expansion of seawater, the melting of glaciers and ice sheets on land, and possibly human changes to groundwater storage.
With regard to thermal expansion, the increase in the atmosphere’s greenhouse gas content has a warming effect on the whole planet including the oceans, which absorb much of the heat. Increased concentrations of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere have exacerbated the greenhouse effect, so more energy in the form of heat is being stored in the ocean. The International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Fifth Assessment Report estimated the upper ocean (surface to 75 m deep) warmed by 0.09 to 0.13 degrees C per decade over the past 40 years. Despite water’s high heat capacity, this heat that is radiated into the ocean by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere causes water molecules to expand, thus creating more water volume in the oceans.
The thermal expansion of liquid water is well known and studied. Charles's law (also known as the law of volumes) put simply states that the volume of a given mass is proportional to its temperature. In other words, when we measure an increase in the temperature (using the Kelvin scale) of a mass of water in the ocean, the volume of that mass of water will increase as well, all other factors being equal.
Thermal expansion can be mathematically described using the ideal gas law, which states that p=ρ*R*T. This equation can be applied broadly to many fluids (including ocean water). It says that the pressure of a fluid is equal to the product of its density, temperature, and the ideal gas constant R. Density is the mass of the water fluid divided by its volume. Rearranging this equation to solve for temperature yields T=p/ρ*R or T=p*V/m*R. As a first approximation, when there is an addition of heat to the ocean (i.e. when the temperature increases), the gas constant R does not change, nor does the pressure of the fluid which depends on height. Thus, with an increase in temperature, there will be an increase in volume of the water per unit mass.
The thermal expansion of seawater has also been observed and modeled. In one observational study, results estimate the heat content of the ocean in the upper 700 meters has increased significantly from 1955-2010 (see Figure 3.7). Observations of the changes in heat content of the ocean are important for providing realistic estimates of how the ocean is changing with global warming. Modeling of heat content of the ocean is important for understanding some of the mechanisms and processes acting on the ocean system. In a recent study, scientists used an earth system model to study several variables of the ocean, one of which was the heat content of the oceans over the past several hundred years. The earth system model incorporated the atmosphere, land surface processes, and other earth components to make it more realistic and similar to observations. Results of their model simulation showed that since 1500, the “changes in the upper ocean (0-300 m) heat content are driven mainly by radiative changes; the influence of changes in the wind-driven circulation on the heat content is small” (see Figure 2). What the results of the study suggest are that there is more heat stored in the ocean over the last 500 years, mostly because of radiation from the sun.
Global warming also has an enormous impact with respect to melting glaciers and ice sheets. Higher global temperatures melt glaciers such as the one in Greenland, which flow into the oceans, adding to the amount of seawater. A large rise (on the order of several feet) in global sea levels poses many threats. According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), “such a rise would inundate coastal wetlands and lowlands, erode beaches, increase the risk of flooding, and increase the salinity of estuaries, aquifers, and wetlands.”
Coastal regions would be most affected by rising sea levels. The increase in sea level along the coasts of continents, especially North America are much more significant than the global average. According to 2007 estimates by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), “global average sea level will rise between 0.6 and 2 feet (0.18 to 0.59 meters) in the next century. Along the U.S. Mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coasts, however, sea level rose in the last century 5 to 6 inches more than the global average. This is due to the subsiding of coastal lands. The sea level along the U.S. Pacific coast has also increased more than the global average but less than along the Atlantic coast. This can be explained by the varying continental margins along both coasts; the Atlantic type continental margin is characterized by a wide, gently sloping continental shelf, while the Pacific type continental margin incorporates a narrow shelf and slope descending into a deep trench. Since low-sloping coastal regions should retreat faster than higher-sloping regions, the Atlantic coast is more vulnerable to sea level rise than the Pacific coast.
The rise in sea level along coastal regions carries implications for a wide range of habitats and inhabitants. Firstly, rising sea levels will have a serious impact on beaches— a place which humans love to visit recreationally and a prime location for real estate. It is ideal to live on the coast, due to a more moderate climate and pleasant scenery, but beachfront property is at risk from eroding land and rising sea levels. Since the threat posed by rising sea levels has become more prominent, property owners and local government have taken measures to prepare for the worst. For example, “Maine has enacted a policy declaring that shorefront buildings will have to be moved to enable beaches and wetlands to migrate inland to higher ground.” Additionally, many coastal states add sand to their beaches to offset shore erosion, and many property owners have elevated their structures in low-lying areas. As a result of the erosion and ruin of properties by large storms on coastal lands, governments have looked into buying land and having residents relocate further inland.
Another important coastal habitat that is threatened by sea level rise is wetlands, which “occur along the margins of estuaries and other shore areas that are protected from the open ocean and include swamps, tidal flats, coastal marshes and bayous.” Wetlands are extremely vulnerable to rising sea levels, since they are within several feet of sea level. The threat posed to wetlands is serious, due to the fact that they are highly productive ecosystems, and they have an enormous impact on the economy of surrounding areas. Wetlands in the U.S. are rapidly disappearing due to an increase in housing, industry, and agriculture, and rising sea levels contribute to this dangerous trend. As a result of rising sea levels, the outer boundaries of wetlands tend to erode, forming new wetlands more inland. According to the EPA, “the amount of newly created wetlands, however, could be much smaller than the lost area of wetlands— especially in developed areas protected with bulkheads, dikes, and other structures that keep new wetlands from forming inland.” When estimating a sea level rise within the next century of 50 cm (20 inches), the U.S. would lose 38% to 61% of its existing coastal wetlands.
A rise in sea level will have a negative impact not only on coastal property and economy but on our supply of fresh water. According to the EPA, “Rising sea level increases the salinity of both surface water and ground water through salt water intrusion.” Coastal estuaries and aquifers, therefore, are at a high risk of becoming too saline from rising sea levels. With respect to estuaries, an increase in salinity would threaten aquatic animals and plants that cannot tolerate high levels of salinity. Aquifers often serve as a primary water supply to surrounding areas, such as Florida’s Biscayne aquifer, which receives freshwater from the Everglades and then supplies water to the Florida Keys. Rising sea levels would submerge low-lying areas of the Everglades, and salinity would greatly increase in portions of the aquifer. The considerable rise in sea level and the decreasing amounts of freshwater along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts would make those areas rather uninhabitable. Many economists predict that global warming will be one of the main economic threats to the West Coast, specifically in California. "Low-lying coastal areas, such as along the Gulf Coast, are particularly vulnerable to sea-level rise and stronger storms—and those risks are reflected in rising insurance rates and premiums. In Florida, for example, the average price of a homeowners’ policy increased by 77 percent between 2001 and 2006." 
Since rising sea levels present a pressing problem not only to coastal communities but to the whole global population as well, much scientific research has been performed to analyze the causes and consequences of a rise in sea level. The U.S. Geological Survey has conducted such research, addressing coastal vulnerability to sea level rise and incorporating six physical variables to analyze the changes in sea level: geomorphology; coastal slope (percent); rate of relative sea level rise (mm/yr); shoreline erosion and acceleration rates (m/yr); mean tidal range (m); and mean wave height (m). The research was conducted on the various coasts of the U.S., and the results are very useful for future reference. Along the Pacific coast, the most vulnerable areas are low-lying beaches, and “their susceptibility is primarily a function of geomorphology and coastal slope.” With regard to research performed along the Atlantic coast, the most vulnerable areas to sea level rise were found to be along the Mid-Atlantic coast (Maryland to North Carolina) and Northern Florida, since these are “typically high-energy coastlines where the regional coastal slope is low and where the major landform type is a barrier island.” For the Gulf coast, the most vulnerable areas are along the Louisiana-Texas coast. According to the results, “the highest-vulnerability areas are typically lower-lying beach and marsh areas; their susceptibility is primarily a function of geomorphology, coastal slope and rate of relative sea-level rise.”
Many humanitarians and environmentalists believe that political policy needs to have a bigger role in carbon dioxide reduction. Humans have a substantial influence on the rise of sea level because we emit increasing levels of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere through automobile use and industry. A higher amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere leads to higher global temperatures, which then results in thermal expansion of seawater and melting of glaciers and ice sheets.
The currents in the world’s oceans are a result of varying temperatures associated with the changing latitudes of our planet. As the atmosphere is warmed nearest the equator, the hot air at the surface of our planet is heated, causing it to rise and draw in cooler air to take its place, creating what is known as circulation cells. This ultimately causes the air to be significantly colder near the poles than at the equator.
Wind patterns associated with these circulation cells drive surface currents which push the surface water to the higher latitudes where the air is colder. This cools the water down enough to where it is capable of dissolving more gasses and minerals, causing it to become very dense in relation to lower latitude waters, which in turn causes it to sink to the bottom of the ocean, forming what is known as North Atlantic Deep Water (NADW) in the north and Antarctic Bottom Water (AABW) in the south. Driven by this sinking and the upwelling that occurs in lower latitudes, as well as the driving force of the winds on surface water, the ocean currents act to circulate water throughout the entire ocean.
When global warming is added into the equation, changes occur, especially in the regions where deep water is formed. With the warming of the oceans and subsequent melting of glaciers and the polar ice caps, more and more fresh water is released into the high latitude regions where deep water is formed. This extra water that gets thrown into the chemical mix dilutes the contents of the water arriving from lower latitudes, reducing the density of the surface water. Consequently the water sinks more slowly than it normally would.
It is important to note that ocean currents provide the necessary nutrients for life to sustain itself in the lower latitudes. Should the currents slow down, fewer nutrients would be brought to sustain ocean life resulting in a crumbling of the food chain and irreparable damage to the marine ecosystem. Slower currents would also mean less carbon fixation. Naturally, the ocean is the largest sink within which carbon is stored. When waters become saturated with carbon, excess carbon has nowhere to go, because the currents are not bringing up enough fresh water to fix the excess. This causes a rise in atmospheric carbon which in turn causes positive feedback that can lead to a runaway greenhouse effect.
Another effect of global warming on the carbon cycle is ocean acidification. The ocean and the atmosphere constantly act to maintain a state of equilibrium, so a rise in atmospheric carbon naturally leads to a rise in oceanic carbon. When carbon is dissolved in water it forms hydrogen and bicarbonate ions, which in turn breaks down to hydrogen and carbonate ions. All these extra hydrogen ions increase the acidity of the ocean and make survival harder for planktonic organisms that depend on calcium carbonate to form their shells. A decrease in the base of the food chain will, once again, be destructive to the ecosystems to which they belong. With fewer of these photosynthetic organisms present at the surface of the ocean, less carbon will be converted to oxygen, thereby allowing the greenhouse gasses to go unchecked.
Global warming also affects weather patterns as they pertain to cyclones. Scientists have found that although there have been fewer cyclones than in the past, the intensity of each cyclone has increased. A simplified definition of what global warming means for the planet is that colder regions would get warmer and warmer regions would get much warmer. However, there is also speculation that the complete opposite could be true. A warmer earth could serve to moderate temperatures worldwide. There is still much that is not understood about the earth’s climate, because it is very difficult to make climate models. As such, predicting the effects that global warming might have on our planet is still an inexact science.
The contents of the ocean floor vary diversely in their origin, from eroded land materials carried into the ocean by rivers or wind flow, waste and decompositions of sea animals, and precipitation of chemicals within the sea water itself, including some from outer space. There are four basic types of sediment of the sea floor: 1.) "Terrigenous" describes the sediment derived from the materials eroded by rain, rivers, glaciers and that which is blown into the ocean by the wind, such as volcanic ash. 2.) Biogenous material is the sediment made up of the hard parts of sea animals that accumulate on the bottom of the ocean. 3.) Hydrogenous sediment is the dissolved material that precipitates in the ocean when oceanic conditions change, and 4.) cosmogenous sediment comes from extraterrestrial sources. These are the components that make up the seafloor under their genetic classifications.
Terrigenous and Biogenous
Terrigenous sediment is the most abundant sediment found on the seafloor, followed by biogenous sediment. The sediment in areas of the ocean floor which is at least 30% biogenous materials is labeled as an ooze. There are two types of oozes: Calcareous oozes and Siliceous oozes. Plankton is the contributor of oozes. Calcareous oozes are predominantly composed of calcium shells found in phytoplankton such as coccolithophores and zooplankton like the foraminiferans. These calcareous oozes are never found deeper than about 4,000 to 5,000 meters because at further depths the calcium dissolves. Similarly, Siliceous oozes are dominated by the siliceous shells of phytoplankton like diatoms and zooplankton such as radiolarians. Depending on the productivity of these planktonic organisms, the shell material that collects when these organisms die may build up at a rate anywhere from 1mm to 1 cm every 1000 years.
Hydrogenous and Cosmogenous
Hydrogenous sediments are uncommon. They only occur with changes in oceanic conditions such as temperature and pressure. Rarer still are cosmogenous sediments. Hydrogenous sediments are formed from dissolved chemicals that precipitate from the ocean water, or along the mid-ocean ridges, they can form by metallic elements binding onto rocks that have water of more than 300 degrees Celsius circulating around them. When these elements mix with the cold sea water they precipitate from the cooling water. Known as manganese nodules, they are composed of layers of different metals like manganese, iron, nickel, cobalt, and copper, and they are always found on the surface of the ocean floor. Cosmogenous sediments are the remains of space debris such as comets and asteroids, made up of silicates and various metals that have impacted the Earth.
Another way that sediments are described is through their descriptive classification. These sediments vary in size, anywhere from 1/4096 of a mm to greater than 256 mm. The different types are: boulder, cobble, pebble, granule, sand, silt, and clay, each type becoming finer in grain. The grain size indicates the type of sediment and the environment in which it was created. Larger grains sink faster and can only be pushed by rapid flowing water (high energy environment) whereas small grains sink very slowly and can be suspended by slight water movement, accumulating in conditions where water is not moving so quickly. This means that larger grains of sediment may come together in higher energy conditions and smaller grains in lower energy conditions.
Various amounts of these sediments are deposited around the world and are distributed in three ways: by the processes of production, dilution, and destruction.
It is known that climate affects the ocean and the ocean affects the climate. Due to climate change, as the ocean gets warmer this too has an effect on the seafloor. Because of greenhouse gasses such as carbon dioxide, this warming will have an effect on the bicarbonate buffer of the ocean. The bicarbonate buffer is the concentration of bicarbonate ions that keeps the ocean’s acidity balanced between a ph range of 7.5-8.4. Addition of carbon dioxide to the ocean water makes the oceans more acidic. Increased ocean acidity is not good for the planktonic organisms that depend on calcium to form their shells. Calcium dissolves with very weak acids and any increase in the ocean’s acidity will be destructive for the calcareous organisms. Increased ocean acidity will lead to decreased Calcite Compensation Depth (CCD), causing calcite to dissolve in shallower waters. This will then have a great effect on the calcareous ooze in the ocean, because the sediment itself would begin to dissolve.
If ocean temperatures rise it will have an effect right beneath the ocean floor and it will allow the addition of another greenhouse gas, methane gas. Methane gas has been found under methane hydrate, frozen methane and water, beneath the ocean floor. With the ocean warming, this methane hydrate will begin to melt and release methane gas, contributing to global warming. Increase of water temperature will also have a devastating effect on different oceanic ecosystems like coral reefs. The direct effect is the coral bleaching of these reefs, which live within a narrow temperature margin, so a small increase in temperature would have a drastic effects in these environments. When corals bleach it is because the coral loses 60-90% of their zooxanthellae due to various stressors, ocean temperature being one of them. If the bleaching is prolonged, the coral host would die.
Although uncertain, another effect of climate change may be the growth, toxicity, and distribution of harmful algal blooms. These algal blooms have serious effects on not only marine ecosystems, killing sea animals and fish with their toxins, but also for humans as well. Some of these blooms deplete the oxygen around them to levels low enough to kill fish. It is important that these harmful effects be noted with higher levels of awareness, so that changes can be implemented before it’s too late.
- History of climate change science
- Index of climate change articles
- Polar ice packs
- World Ocean
- Current sea level rise
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- DISCOVER – satellite-based ocean and climate data since 1979 from NASA