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Climate change pushed ocean temperatures to record high in 2020, study finds

By Ben Deacon, Monday January 18, 2021 - 06:15 EDT
ABC licensed image
Oceans warmed to record levels in 2020, which is likely to have serious impacts on marine ecosystems. - ABC licensed

The world's oceans absorbed 20 sextillion joules of heat due to climate change in 2020 and warmed to record levels, a 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 Center 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.

"In fact, they are the best single indicator that the planet is warming."

Danger by degrees

The study came as scientists confirmed that global air temperatures in 2020 were equal to 2016 ? ? and as Australia experienced its .

"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.

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

"We've already dialled in what we're going to see over the next 20, 30, 40 years.

"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."

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 in the Tasman Sea over the past five years, including in 2016," she said.

"That was the longest, most intense marine heat wave on record ? and that was associated with a shift in fish species and for the first time."

In its , 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.


© ABC 2021

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