Climate Change Environment Kenny Stancil

Oceans Hotter in 2021 Than Any Time in Recorded History

Tony Webster / Flickr (CC BY 2.0)

By Kenny Stancil / Common Dreams

New research out Tuesday shows that the world’s oceans last year were hotter than they’ve ever been in recorded history—part of a long-term warming trend driven primarily by planet-wrecking fossil fuel emissions.

According to an annual study published in the peer-reviewed journal Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, the past five years have been the five hottest for Earth’s oceans since measurements began in the late 1950s.

Since the late 1980s, oceans have been warming eight times faster than they did during the preceding decades, and 2021 marked the third consecutive year in which the previous record for annual energy absorption was shattered. These trends, the paper makes clear, are due to “an increase in anthropogenic greenhouse gas concentrations.”

“We want to stress that global warming is actually ocean warming, and ocean warming has serious consequences,” Lijing Cheng, a lead author of the report and professor of environmental science at the Institute of Atmospheric Physics at the Chinese Academy of Sciences, told CNN. “Ocean warming keeps breaking records, which is a reminder that the world needs action to combat climate change.”

The research on rising ocean heat content comes one day after the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service published an assessment showing that the past seven years have been the hottest in recorded history.

Like rising global surface air temperatures, the ongoing ocean warming pattern is caused by carbon dioxide and methane emissions, researchers say. Greenhouse gas pollution has surged over the past two centuries due largely to fossil fuel-powered capitalism and its insatiable profit motive.

As excess heat is trapped in the planet’s atmosphere, oceans absorb 90% of it, leading to a sharp increase in ocean heat content, the paper explains.

“The impacts are perhaps subtle but profound,” Kevin Trenberth, a co-author of the new ocean report and scientist at the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Colorado, told CNN. “To stop this [trend], we really need to get to net-zero [emissions], and many countries have plans but not enough actions to support those.”

Before and during the recent COP26 climate summit, many governments pledged to reduce planet-heating pollution in the coming years, but new data showing a steady increase in greenhouse gas emissions and atmospheric concentrations reveals that empty promises won’t be enough to avert the climate emergency’s most catastrophic consequences.

If policymakers fail to take swift and robust action to decarbonize the world’s energy system and economy, scientists warn, ocean heat content will continue to climb, further exacerbating extreme weather disasters that are already increasing in frequency, duration, and intensity.

“Warmer oceans supercharge weather patterns to create more powerful storms, hurricanes, and intense rainfall which leads to deadly flooding,” CNN noted, pointing to Hurricane Ida’s devastating effects along the Gulf Coast, the ensuing inundation of New York City’s subway system, and Super Typhoon Rai, which killed hundreds of people in the Philippines over the holidays.

The Washington Post added:

The increase in ocean heat also raises air temperatures, allowing more moisture to enter the warmer atmosphere. For every 1.8 degrees of warming, heavy rain events will intensify by about 7%. 2021 marked one of the wettest years on record for the East Coast, thanks to a slew of tropical storms and summer thunderstorms.

The unusual December tornadoes that struck several states can also be traced back to the warm waters. In December, record warm temperatures in the Gulf of Mexico created an atmosphere more reminiscent of spring than winter. As such, two tornado outbreaks occurred in the southern and central United States in the same week.

Moreover, higher ocean temperatures threaten to disrupt marine life—which supplies a quarter of the world’s protein—and put millions of people at risk of accelerated sea-level rise.

“Ocean warming is destabilizing Antarctic ice shelves from underneath, which could lead to the collapse of large pieces of the ice sheet such as the Thwaites glacier, threatening massive… sea level rise,” Michael Mann, a climate scientist at Pennsylvania State University and one of the authors of the study, told the Post. “This finding really underscores the urgency of acting on climate now.”

CNN reported:

As the oceans heat up, the water expands and sea level rises. Cheng said about one third of the total sea level rise during the 20th century was due to ocean warming alone. In addition to more high-tide flooding, sea level rise threatens coastal freshwater supply with saltwater intrusion, and makes coastal communities and infrastructure more vulnerable to storm surge.

Cheng said part of the reason action is so urgently needed is because the oceans will continue warming for decades after fossil fuel emissions are slashed.

As Trenberth explained, “the oceans are slow to respond,” which is why “we must prepare better and build resilience” now.

The dangers associated with ocean warming, states the paper, “should be incorporated into climate risk assessments, adaptation, and mitigation,” and be reflected in “engineering design, building codes, and modifications to coastal development plans.”


  1. There is no more ‘acting on climate’. It will all be over this summer when permafrost releases more methane, permanent attic ice is gone and water rises to release nuclear storage pools. Stay close to those you love and try to be a good person.

  2. We are going extinct. Waaaaaaay sooner than you think. Maybe we should have a discussion about that?

  3. Yes, Biden announced in 2019 that “climate change” is his theme – essentially a rerun of the 1970s “ecology” theme, when we were told that the environment would likely collapse by the year 2000. In fact, many countries made much progress since then, on reducing their shares of climate-changing pollution, perhaps most notably Russia and China (a big chunk of the planet). A minority of experts say it’s too late, regardless. The greatest threat facing us today is the chances of nuclear world war, as Biden beats the drums for war against China, then Russia, then back to China…

  4. Ocean acidification from carbon dioxide emissions is at least as big of a problem as the warming of the oceans, if not bigger. But so what? This is just another of the endless stories that shows what global warming/climate change will do and is doing, and that says that WE MUST DO SOMETHING NOW, but that has no real solutions. Until and unless people are willing to get rid of industrial living and lower their population, nothing substantial will be fixed here, and the Earth and all life here will suffer the consequences for the attitudes, actions, and lifestyle choices of this cancerous species called humans.

    1. Your biotically life-affirming, earth-saving philosophy is showing its ugly underside in designating humans a cancerous species (or, keeping up with current agitprop, a deadly virus). I’m sure ruling eugenicists now out to lead us into the final solution for all the mess ‘we’ have made of their planet will appreciate your support, however.

  5. Yadigar Sekerci and Sergei Petrovskii wrote a paper titled “Mathematical Modelling of Plankton–Oxygen Dynamics Under the Climate Change.” They studied how rising ocean temperatures increases the rate of decline in plankton populations leading to further global oxygen depletion. Plankton populations have been on the decline since 1950. Here’s an excerpt from the abstract. “We show that a sustainable oxygen production is only possible in an intermediate range of the production rate. If, in the course of time, the oxygen production rate becomes too low or too high, the system’s dynamics changes abruptly, resulting in the oxygen depletion and plankton extinction. Our results indicate that the depletion of atmospheric oxygen on global scale (which, if happens, obviously can kill most of life on Earth) is another possible catastrophic consequence of the global warming, a global ecological disaster that has been overlooked.” I’ll add, the CO2 we make when burning fossil fuels holds 2 molecules of oxygen. That’s oxygen that is no longer available for us to breathe. We are trading breathable oxygen for energy. We are also tapping into an oxygen supply that took billions of years to form, and we are doing so at unprecedented rates. Better than carbon capture technologies we need ways to separate the O2 from the carbon. Kill two birds with one stone.

  6. Golly gee, how many thermometers in how many locations did scientists have to stick in the oceans to come up with this latest temperature check? Oh, I know, they used those computers, just like them, bought and paid for by their sponsors to produce mathematically rigged results to persuade people, as usual with obedient fear for the authority of Science, to entrust ourselves to the solutions likewise sponsored by the same psychopaths who have been turning life on earth into one big shithole in the name of progress. I guess all that’s left to do with those thermometers is for the experts and their sponsors to sit on them.

  7. We are so arrogant as to make a claim that we humans are all created in god’s image. God over man.. man over nature, which really means man over everything.
    In just a few years, all the grains that we all need for survival will be affected by rising temperatures to the point of unsustainable supply for this huge population of all of us monkeys.
    We’re going away real soon… thank god for that.
    Se ya later ape!

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