The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) had to redesign a graph of ocean heat content last week because data collected by the agency went off the charts.
The graph's upper bound was raised 25 percent in order to plot the rise in the amount of energy stored in the oceans, an event triggered by increasing amounts of human-generated greenhouse gas emissions.
It's not the first time the agency was forced to revise the size of its graphs. NOAA has amended charts three other times, including once for sea level rise, since they began posting them in 2008.
"The ocean is in a state that has never previously been observed," Amy Clement, Associate Dean and Professor at the University of Miami Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science, told VICE News. "We're in unchartered waters."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's graph of global ocean heat content.
According to research published by NOAA scientists in 2012, the spike in ocean heat content from 1955 to 2012 was around 24 x 10^22 Joules: That's 2,400,000,000,000,000,000,000,
The importance of the updated NOAA data, however, is less in the fact that the agency had to adjust its charts. Instead, say scientists, the new high temperature illustrates the dramatic warming of the oceans, which is frequently overlooked, with much greater attention being paid to atmospheric temperature increase.
Oceans can absorb about 1,000 times more heat than the atmosphere. At least 90 percent of extra heat trapped by human-generated greenhouse gases can be found in the world's oceans.
According to Clement, that makes NOAA's ocean heat content graph, which tracks warming from the surface down to a depth of 2000 meters (6562 feet), "the best measure" of the extent of global warming.
"It takes a lot more energy to heat water than to heat air," Jennifer Francis a climate scientist at Rutgers University, told VICE News. "The steady upward climb of deep ocean temperature is staggering. And nothing other than increased greenhouse gases caused by burning fossil fuels can explain it."
The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration updated its graph in order to accommodate rising ocean heat content.
"Oceans are always moving, not only horizontally, but vertically," NOAA oceanographer John Leslie, who believes the media and public focus too much on surface temperature, told VICE News. "This has the effect of removing the radiatively-heated water from the surface to the interior of the ocean and away from the influence of the surface, in effect sequestering heat."
A mean temperature rise of just 0.1 degrees Celsius in oceans corresponds to a temperature increase of 100 degrees Celsius in the atmosphere if all the heat associated with the ocean anomaly was transferred into the atmosphere.
"This is physically impossible," Leslie said. "It just illustrates the oceans' capacity to store heat."
Even with record levels of ocean heat content, though, there still might be a slight underestimating of ocean warming because the estimates neglect input below 2000 meters, Leslie said.
NOAA monitors ocean conditions with an array of satellites, balloons, buoys, and ships. Water temperatures are taken by a network of diving buoys managed by Argo, an international ocean-observing collaborative among 45 countries. Currently, there are more than 3,750 color- and country-coded Argo buoys collecting data from the ocean's surface to 2,000 meters deep worldwide.
The rise in ocean heat content is also significant because there El Nino conditions have occurred since 2010. El Nino is characterized as unusually warm sea surface temperatures in the equatorial Pacific Ocean.
"The next El Nino will most likely cause another broken record, probably broken by a large margin," said Francis.
"Right now the warming is happening between 10 and 100 times faster than at any other time in the past 800,000 years," Chris Langdon, a marine biology and ecology professor at the University of Miami, told VICE News.
That spells big trouble for sea life, he said.
"Each year the oceans are becoming warmer and more acidic and that's stressful for many forms of marine organisms. The rates of change now are so fast they may not have time to evolve.
"We won't be certain until it's a little too late to do something about it," Langdon added.
Follow Erica K. Landau on Twitter: @ericakland