Earth’s average surface temperature is warming at an unprecedented rate. Although the planet has naturally warmed and cooled over tens of thousands of years, human activities in the past 200 years are driving a much more rapid warming than would have occurred naturally.
This excess heat energy in the atmosphere and ocean is contributing to changes such as sea level rise, shifts in precipitation patterns, and changes to the lifecycle and habitat of many plants and animals. There is also concern that existing or continued warming could cause unanticipated or abrupt changes for which many living things (including humans) could find it difficult to adapt.
Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in the nineteenth century, humans have increased the concentration of several greenhouse gases in the atmosphere roughly 40 percent (from 280 to 390 parts per million). These gases—which include carbon dioxide, water vapor, methane, nitrous oxide, and CFCs—absorb infrared energy radiating from the surface of the planet and, instead of allowing it to pass through the atmosphere to outer space, re-radiate back into the atmosphere.
The greenhouse effect is natural—and necessary for our survival. Without it, temperatures on most parts of the planet would be too cold to support life. However, adding excess greenhouse gases to the atmosphere is trapping increasing amounts of heat, causing the average global temperature to rise about 0.8°C (1.4°F) since the early twentieth century. Sources of these gases include burning fossil fuels and forests, livestock and agricultural production, and industrial processes such as manufacturing concrete and CFC production.
Projections described in the Fifth Assessment Report (AR5) of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) indicate that by the end of the twenty-first century the global surface temperature is likely to rise another 0.3 to 1.7 °C (0.5 to 3.1 °F) under the report’s lowest greenhouse gas emission scenario and 2.6 to 4.8 °C (4.7 to 8.6 °F) under the highest.
News & Insights
Rick Murray, WHOI Deputy Director and Vice President for Research, weighs in on the IPCC’s special report on the ocean and cryosphere in a changing climate.
Climate scientists work with historians to tap weather records from old New England whaling logbooks. They hope to leverage the historical data to gain new insights into modern-day climate conditions.
WHOI in the News
From Oceanus Magazine
Scientists discover that the amount of heat in a major Arctic Ocean circulation system has doubled over the past 30 years. If the temperatures continue to spike, it could eventually spell trouble for the ice above.
Some corals are less vulnerable to ocean acidification. Can the offspring from these more resilient corals travel to other reefs to help sustain more vulnerable coral populations there?
The twilight zone is a part of the ocean 660 to 3,300 feet below the surface, where little sunlight can reach. It is deep and dark and cold, and the pressures there are enormous. Despite these challenging conditions, the twilight zone teems with life that helps support the ocean’s food web and is intertwined with Earth’s climate. Some countries are gearing up to exploit twilight zone fisheries, with unknown impacts for marine ecosystems and global climate. Scientists and engineers at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution are poised to explore and investigate this hidden frontier.
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Scientists know that gradually rising ocean temperatures can push corals past a threshold and cause them to bleach. But combine…