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Humans may decide to curb the greenhouse gasses that are changing Earth's climate, but the ocean will warm and rise for centuries regardless, US government scientists said in a new report released Thursday.
The State of the Climate 2014 report, which brings together the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the American Meteorological Society (AMS), synthesized the research of more than 400 scientists from 58 countries. It's "more than your annual physical," NOAA climate monitoring chief Derek Arndt, who co-edited the report, told VICE News. It's "like the complete work-up of the climate system coming back from the lab," he said.
The results, simply put, aren't good.
In many ways, the findings simply reinforced what we already know, but those trends are alarming. Glaciers have continued shrinking, Alaska's permafrost is quickly thawing, and Arctic sea ice remains in decline. The seas are rising at a steady pace and more heat in the ocean, the scientists reported, has contributed to more intense storms.
"It was the warmest year on record for the globe and the oceans; it was the year with the highest sea level we've seen on average around the globe," Arndt told VICE News. "Those are easy to latch on to statistics, but more importantly they reconfirm — and they put an exclamation point on — the trends that we've seen for years and decades. Different pieces of the climate system will surge and fall back from year to year, but across the board we're living in a world that's changing and in most cases changing really rapidly."
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The agencies reported that the oceans are sucking up 90 percent of the excess heat caused by greenhouse gas emissions, and that the surface and upper layers of the oceans showed record warming — including a patch in the Pacific Ocean off the US coast, hundreds of miles across, that's 4-5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter than normal. University of Washington researcher Nick Bond nicknamed the patch "the blob."
Greg Johnson, an oceanographer at NOAA, compared the heat-trapping quality of the oceans to a freight train.
"It takes a big push to get it going but it is moving now and will continue to move long after we continue to pushing it," Johnson told reports during a Thursday conference. "Even if we were to freeze greenhouse gases at current levels, the sea would actually continue to warm for centuries and millennia, and as they continue to warm and expand the sea levels will continue to rise."
Last week, a separate paper published in the journal Science found that seas are on track to eventually rise at least 20 feet, even if global warming is limited to 2 degrees Celsius — swamping the land on which 375 million people now live.
More than 20 European countries saw record warmth last year. In other areas, like Africa and Australia, 2014 nearly topped the charts. Only one spot remained stubbornly cooler than average, they found — North America's east coast, where, incidentally, some the world's most vociferous deniers of man-made climate change go to work.
The 2014 report focused especially on the impacts to the ocean. With El Niño conditions strengthening in the Pacific Ocean and likely to exacerbate changing conditions, Arndt expects next year's report will focus on oceans, too.
"Many foundational elements of the ecosystems, life forms that support larger and larger life like coral reefs and plankton, they're stressed. And either migration and adaptation in living things can keep up with the changes, or they can't," Arndt told VICE News. "Those are the consequences of those seemingly obscure changes in salinity and currents of the ocean. They do have impacts on living things, which have impacts on larger living things, which have impacts on fish and big living things."
Big livings things, in others words, like us.
Follow Darren Ankrom on Twitter: @darrenankrom