Atmosphere Now Trapping Twice the Heat

Atmosphere Heat NASA

New data from NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) suggests that the heat being trapped in the atmosphere has nearly doubled from 2005 to 2019. A recent study published in Geophysical Research Letters explores this shocking increase to the Earth's energy imbalance -- what scientists refer to as the "difference between global mean solar radiation absorbed and thermal infrared radiation emitted to space."

As NASA scientist and lead author of the study, Dr. Norman Loeb told CNN: "It's excess energy that's being taken up by the planet, so it's going to mean further increases in temperatures and more melting of snow and sea ice, which will cause sea level rise -- all things that society really cares about."

NASA: Comparison of overlapping one-year estimates at 6-month intervals of net top-of-the-atmosphere annual energy flux from CERES (solid orange line) and an in situ observational estimate of uptake of energy by Earth climate system (solid turquoise line). (June 15, 2021.)

Why This Matters

Life on Earth needs the sun's heat but when too much is trapped by greenhouse gases it can have adverse impacts on everything from droughts to ocean acidification, stronger storms, and beyond. Our oceans absorb most of this heat, but and if humans don't drastically reduce the emission of greenhouse gases, our planet (along with us) will only continue to experience further threats due to climate change.

Life on Earth survives based on the equilibrium between absorbing and reflecting the sun's energy. The paper's authors found that the earth is absorbing much more energy than it is reflecting, 90% of which has ended up in the ocean. The world's oceans hit their warmest level in recorded history in 2019, and further warming will lead to the collapse of entire ecosystems, including food sources that humans depend on.

Feedback Loop

Scientists discovered the doubling of the energy imbalance which, as the NOAA explains, is due to the increase of greenhouse gases -- or "anthropogenic forcing" -- and increases in water vapor and decreases in clouds and sea ice. Additionally, the Pacific Ocean has patterns of warming and cooling that scientists call the Pacific Decadal Oscillation (PDO). The PDO was in a warm phase from 2014 into 2020, which resulted in less cloud cover over the ocean and increased its exposure to the sun's heat. Scientists say this phase "likely played a major role in the intensification of the energy imbalance."

Dr. Loeb told CNN: "My hope is the rate that we're seeing this energy imbalance subsides in the coming decades. Otherwise, we're going to see more alarming climate changes."