Turning Up the Heat: Rising Temperatures on the Ocean Floor

By Madison Rae | UTS Staff Writer | SQ Online (2015-16)


Deep sea Pacific viperfish use bioluminescence to lure in their prey.

It would be difficult to forget the disastrous weather we faced during Week 1 this Winter Quarter. El Niño hit us hard here at UCSD, and according to a research paper by Scripps Institute of Oceanography oceanographer, Dr. Lisa Levin, and her partner, French ecologist, Dr. Nadine Le Bris, worse is yet to come.  Published on November 13, 2015, “The deep ocean under climate change” states that the effects of climate change can already be seen throughout our oceans, and are beginning to visibly affect the weather and, subsequently, terrestrial environments.

70-75% of the planet is covered in ocean, hosting some of the most diverse habitats on Earth — according to Drs. Levin and Le Bris, “more than 90% of [Earth’s] livable volume is in the deep ocean, below water depths of 200m.”  Not only is this ecosystem full of an as-yet-unknown number of species, but the deep oceans also play an integral part in storing carbon dioxide (CO2) and regulating the planet’s temperature.  This is the greenhouse effect: our atmosphere’s collection of gases (including CO2) traps some sunlight and thus warms the planet. This process is necessary for life to exist on Earth, but due to of the amount of fossil fuels being burned over the past few hundred years, more and more CO2 has been added to the atmosphere, and the atmosphere is retaining more heat than usual.  

In addition to being trapped in the atmosphere, CO2 is also stored in the oceans, dissolved in the water until the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere starts to run low.  But with too high of a concentration already in the atmosphere, even more is being dissolved in the oceans. When CO2 dissolves in water, certain chemical reactions occur and the carbon is stored as an acid.  Too much CO2 in the water causes the oceans to become more acidic at a rate that’s too fast for the organisms living there to adapt, a condition known as ocean acidification. Many types of corals and organisms with calcium carbonate (CaCO3) based shells can’t grow properly in these conditions, wreaking havoc on the many organisms that live in and around coral reefs. The high CO2 levels also prevent ocean water from holding as much oxygen, which makes it more difficult for organisms to survive. Drs. Le Bris and Levin discuss how the “expansion of the world’s naturally occurring low oxygen zones…has led to habitat compression for intolerant [species of] fishes and habitat expansion of hypoxia-tolerant species such as the Humboldt squid.” These habitat expansions and reductions alter the balance of their ecosystems. The amount of oxygen present also “exerts tremendous control on marine biodiversity through effects in evolution, physiology, reproduction, behavior, and species interactions,” further upsetting the balance and forcing species to adapt to the new conditions or face serious population reduction and eventual extinction.


A side-by-side comparison of the natural greenhouse effect versus the current greenhouse effect enhanced by human CO2 output. In the enhanced effect, less heat is returned into space, and greater amounts are retained within the atmosphere.

Between the atmosphere and the ocean, global temperature increase creates a positive feedback loop. As the greenhouse effect grows stronger, more CO2 is stored in the oceans and atmosphere, retaining greater amounts of heat and warming the planet more rapidly.  Rising temperatures promote the release of more greenhouse gases. The rising temperature also changes how the oceans operate: the cycling of warm surface water and cool deep water is less pronounced, which prevents nutrients from reaching the surface, and prevents phytoplankton and other organic material from reaching the depths.

As a result of warming oceans, terrestrial environments face extreme weather.  Storms starting out on the oceans, like El Niño or the typhoon that hit Japan in 2014, form over warm waters and rely on heat and humidity to gather strength. Warming oceans raise the risk of bigger, more intense storms. In juxtaposition, the state of California is in the middle of a massive drought, due to warmer temperatures preventing much needed snow melts and increasing evaporation.  Scripps Institute of Oceanography (SIO) is currently conducting research on water quality and beach erosion along the coast, as rising sea levels threaten coastal ecosystems and communities in the coming future.  They also have a citizen research project in progress for anyone who wants to get involved. Arctic ice is melting at a dangerous rate, and ocean currents shifting due to increased temperatures “may be sufficient to release many gigatons of frozen methane [another greenhouse gas] from the seafloor,” far too much to be oxidized by marine microbes.


Flooding in the L.A. River from the first wave of El Niño rain this January.

How can we stop this? According to Drs. Levin and Le Bris, CO2 emissions need to be reduced immediately, and their effects will still be felt for some time.  They suggest various plans, such as creating Marine Protected Areas that include deep ocean hotspots and ceasing offshore mining and drilling to prevent further stress on the environment. Most importantly, they call for the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change to recognize the problems facing the deep oceans and create legislature to begin solving the issues.  In December, they adopted the Paris Agreement, a “comprehensive climate change agreement” that’s collaborating to enact change in global environmental practices. Here at UC San Diego, the Sustainability Resource Center developed a Climate Action Plan in 2008 that aims to reduce campus greenhouse gas emissions and waste as well as further student and national research into sustainability and eco-friendly practices.  In recent years, UCSD has partnered with SIO on multiple research projects studying the effects of climate change along the California coast.  Recognition of deep ocean climate change as a global issue, and implementation of action plans like the Sustainability Resource Center’s, or the Paris Agreement, are necessary to begin restoring the balance of CO2 in the ocean and atmosphere and beginning to repair the damage that’s been done.



  • Time75

    Not another 1 angled look at cause of rise in temperature. Such narrow looks at causes of change. “Popular” science has such hyper-focused views on cause of “potential” problems it should be alarming to many people. I find articles such as these partial truths. There is no 100 percent factual reason for the increase of global temperature. Current evidence is not 100 percent solid. There are many factors that sometimes do not get taken into consideration. Here are a few examples. Example 1: Volcanoes are well known to greatly effect the weather. There is over 1,500 known volcano’s on land. There is well over 10,000 know volcano’s located in the pacific ocean. To what degree does that effect the ocean temperature? Is the ocean becoming more shallow? Example 2: It has been documented that the moon effects the tides of ocean and also in turn effects weather and weather patterns. It is also good to not that the moon is falling further away from the earth which makes changes to the “norm”. What was the distance of the moon 2000 years ago? what effect would the moon have on earths weather if it pulled 10 feet every 5 years? Does the moons distance play an important factor in suns effect on earth?(obviously yes no matter how minute it may seem) The further the moon moves away from the sun. The more sunlight enters earth. 1 degree moved can go from 1 inch to 100 miles + in with as distance plays its role. Those are couple of the less spoken uncontrollable events that cannot be controlled by mankind! Now lets add the things that can be controlled to a degree. Example 1: human population is a factor right. What degree of effect does that have? since the mid 1880’s it has been the argument of a USA political party of population control thru abortion. How have we combated natures population control of humans? Did you know every species of land animals has a enemy fungus that kills and bread specific? In the united states there is forced medical insurance. Does this decrease death rate of humans? Increase of medicines and the insane idea of “accident control” by laws. Has this increase or decreased death rates. I can mention many more but will leave it at that. Example 2: The decrease of trees and increase of open land. The idea is that trees capture co2 gases more trees means more co2 gases captured. The problem that effects this is homes and many modern conveniences. Not going to list the many things provide people in terms of convenience. Not even going to provide the political laws that support the destruction of trees. Out of curiosity what does the home you live in weather an apartment, condo or house have any wood such as 2×4’s for framing or for other household things? Example 3: Inventions and testing. Radio waves, Satellites(over 2,000 satellites orbiting earths atmosphere), microwaves, testing of nuclear weapons in earths atmosphere, and many chemicals all have an effect on the weather to some degree. I mean who writes on paper on more right? Most have batteries for laptops and cell phones. How often do you as a writer watch tv, search the web, talk on phone, or listen to radio? There is something to be said about producing chemicals and the use of frequencies. There is not one thing on this planet that does not effect weather either directly or indirectly. Example 4: land animals other than humans even ocean creatures. Did you know that a scientist in Africa was responsible for killing over 40, thousand elephants? Uhhhhhhggg the many destructive things done in the name of science to control. There was a documentary produce about the almost extincted sea otters when they were used for there furs. The problem was the coveting of people and the taking for granted of the product so much so that it was not handled with care and discarded. Not to mention the idiots who protest and burn such things to make a point. First it was a waste of life to kill maybe, but definitely a waste of life when it was burned. Whether if it was a fur coat, book, or other useful things in the name of protest. Did you know tons of food was wasted in the united states during the great depression? Did you know that government incentives during the great depression to farm land in the west cause the “dust bowl”? Crazy how one thing can make such a difference. Just as those sea-otters. There are many such example how little things like the building of damns, the porting of boats can change things drastically. There is a California coast line video lesson taught you can find the link on youtube. I would also advise you to watch endless summer 2 as at the end you can see how the changing of things affected waves vs the endless summer 1. I end this comment due to the fact that there is so little taken into consideration and which plays the biggest role in the make up of weather is still not fully know. Such as your Marine microbes for example. Look up the study of archaea by Alyson Santoro and study Isoprene when mixed with nitric oxides. Plants produce so many V.O.C. and nobody talks about them. We barely understand weather let alone understand plants. One thing you do have right is that there is a balance and in my opinion any human would be a fool to believe they perfectly understand the complexities of live to say they can control such things providing the perfect balance needed. Every species of life plays there part. Sad that so many use the little knowledge they have to produce fear in order to control others.