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Pacific Ocean Temperatures Rising Fastest in 10,000 Years

  • Rosanne Skirble

Scientists and sailors on the Indonesian research vessel, the RV Baruna Jaya VIII collect sediment cores off the coast of Indonesia. (Yair Rosenthal, Rutgers University)

Scientists and sailors on the Indonesian research vessel, the RV Baruna Jaya VIII collect sediment cores off the coast of Indonesia. (Yair Rosenthal, Rutgers University)

The ocean is absorbing heat 15 times faster than at any other time during the past 10,000 years, according to a new study.

Rutgers University oceanographer Yair Rosenthal and colleagues reconstructed the climate record from sediment cores from the waters of Indonesia, where the waters of the Pacific and Indian oceans overlap.

“Indonesia is essentially an archipelago of different seaways,” Rosenthal said. “It’s a nice conduit where you can essentially monitor changes without going everywhere in the Pacific."

The study finds that subsurface temperatures near the equator varied with natural warming cycles in northern and southern regions of the world.
Lead author Yair Rosenthal from Rutgers University (R) and Jim Broda from Woods Hole Ocean Institute (L) in the science laboratory of R/V Knorr during a 2009 coring expedition to the Peruvian coast. (Roy Groething)

Lead author Yair Rosenthal from Rutgers University (R) and Jim Broda from Woods Hole Ocean Institute (L) in the science laboratory of R/V Knorr during a 2009 coring expedition to the Peruvian coast. (Roy Groething)


Rosenthal says the sediment cores show a relatively stable ocean that cooled by about 2 degrees Celsius until 300 years ago, when temperatures slowly started to rise.

Big heat reservoir

That rate has accelerated over the past 60 years.

“The atmosphere has been quickly responding to what human activities are doing, and the ocean is slowly catching up, but this happens slowly and takes a long time and we are not in equilibrium,” Rosenthal said.

A UN report released in September noted that, while global temperatures did rise each decade since the 1950s, the rate of global warming has slowed.

Climate skeptics say this boosts their claim that emissions from power plants, motor vehicles and buildings are not the source of the problem.

Climate scientists attribute the cooling to volcanic eruptions, changes in solar intensity and the movement of heat through the ocean.

Breaking point

While the ocean is the largest reservoir for heat-trapping gases, it is an ecological service that is unsustainable over time, Rosenthal says.​


“I think now we basically are way beyond this buffering. Eventually, given enough time, the ocean will equilibrate," he said. "Right now, the way we are forcing climate is really fast, too fast for the ocean to essentially catch up with this warming.”

The study is published in the Science.

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