With the ocean covering about 70% of our planet, it provides us not only food and transportation, but also medicinal ingredients that help combat cancer and heart disease. According to the World Wildlife Fund, over 250 million people depend on the ocean for coastal protection and livelihoods.
While the ocean fuels the world’s food security and economy by transporting around 90% of global trade, it also ensures humanity’s survival by producing half of the oxygen we breathe. But only few are aware of how the ocean also regulates our weather and climate—the theme chosen for this year’s World Meteorological Day celebrated last March 23. “The Ocean, Our Climate and Weather” trains the spotlight on how the ocean affects our atmosphere, the importance of ocean monitoring, and the impacts of climate change.
How the Ocean Shapes Weather and Climate
We get most of our freshwater supply from rain, produced by the water cycle fed by the ocean. According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), this happens because the ocean absorbs a significant amount of the sun’s heat, and releases it to the atmosphere as water vapor. Ocean currents distribute water vapor around the globe, influencing weather and climate in different areas. The interaction between the atmosphere and the ocean produces El Niño, associated with warm and dry conditions; and La Niña, which brings wet conditions.
PAGASA Hydrologist Rosalie Pagulayan shares how oceans shape Philippine weather. “Our ocean plays a big role in the formation of tropical cyclones or bagyo. Here in the tropics, the oceans provide all the necessary energy to sustain a tropical cyclone. If you notice, when the cyclone makes landfall, it weakens. It regains strength and intensity when it crosses large bodies of water.”
Around 20 tropical cyclones enter the Philippine boundary each year, making it the most tropical cyclone-visited country in the world. While cyclones may lead to disasters, they also provide half of the country’s rains, which fill up dams.
Climate Change and Our Oceans
The ocean fights global warming by absorbing 50 times more carbon dioxide than the atmosphere, and more than 90% of excess heat trapped by greenhouse gases. But human activities such as fossil fuel use, livestock production and deforestation are boosting global temperatures.
“Ocean heat is at record levels because of greenhouse gas emissions, and ocean acidification continues unabated. The impact of this will be felt for hundreds of years because the ocean has a long memory,” says WMO Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas. Impacts include the melting of ice in Greenland and Antarctica, which contribute to the rise in sea level. “In 2020, the annual Arctic sea ice minimum was among the lowest on record, exposing Polar communities to abnormal coastal flooding, and stakeholders such as shipping and fisheries, to sea ice hazards,” Taalas explains.
Excess heat in oceans also cause extreme weather events, such as the most active Atlantic hurricane season on record in 2020, which produced 30 named tropical cyclones. “Warmer oceans result to more evaporation. When there’s more moisture in the atmosphere, this may result in intensified tropical cyclones,” says Pagulayan. “This means stronger rains, storm surges, and the possibility of tornadoes. Coastal communities will be inundated even those that do not usually experience floods. Heat waves may occur. While some parts of the country may experience droughts, other parts will receive excess rainfall. The greatest impact is on food production.
”When the ocean absorbs more than its fill of carbon dioxide emissions, its waters lose oxygen and become more acidic. This disturbs ecosystems, causing deaths among marine species and reducing food supply for humans.
Monitoring the Ocean
The ocean is a vast and mighty force, and its power will be more than we can handle if the climate crisis continues. WMO works to improve and widen its scope of observation, research and operational services for climate change adaptation and promoting resilience among communities.
As more and more populations settle along coastlines, accurate and impact-based forecasts as well as multi-hazard early warning systems need to be in place to save lives. Tourism and maritime transportation rely on actionable information in securing their operations and promoting economic growth.
Though the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted WMO’s operations through its recall of research vessels and failure in maintaining its ocean buoys, the organization remains dedicated to expanding its global observing system—something Pagulayan is grateful for. “Global warming creates a domino effect in our environment. Animal and plant species that fail to adapt can result in their extinction. We need to deepen our study on all these impacts. Through WMO, PAGASA is able to collaborate with other countries to gather enough data and scientific evidence on climate change and our ocean,” she ends.