Skip to main content

Sign up for our newsletter.

Quality journalism. Progressive values. Direct to your inbox.

High surf from Hurricane Laura covers a jetty in Galveston, Texas on August 27, 2020. (Photo: Ellie Cherryhomes/AFP via Getty Images)

High surf from Hurricane Laura covers a jetty in Galveston, Texas on August 27, 2020. (Photo: Ellie Cherryhomes/AFP via Getty Images)

'Very Bad News': Scientists Behind New Study Warn Warming Oceans 'Contributing to Climate Breakdown'

New findings on human-caused global heating and ocean stability have "profound and troubling implications," says co-author Michael Mann.


Jessica Corbett

In a rare calm moment during a historically active Atlantic hurricane season, an international team of climate scientists on Monday published a new study in the journal Nature Climate Change showing that human-caused global heating is making the world's oceans more "stable"—which, as co-author Michael Mann explained, is "very bad news."

Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Penn State, detailed researchers' findings about ocean stratification in a piece for Newsweek. Using "more comprehensive data and a more sophisticated method for estimating stratification changes" than past studies, the scientists found that "oceans are not only becoming more stable, but are doing so faster than was previously thought."

The team—led by Guancheng Li of the Institute of Atmospheric Physics in China—specifically found that stratification globally increased by a "substantial" 5.3% from 1960 to 2018, mostly in the upper 650 feet or so of the world oceans. "This seemingly technical finding has profound and troubling implications," Mann noted.

"The more stable the upper ocean, the less vertical mixing that takes place. This mixing is a primary means by which the ocean buries warming surface waters. So the surface warms up even faster. It's what we call a 'positive feedback'—a vicious cycle," he wrote. "That's bad for a number of reasons."

Noting the ongoing storm season and previous warnings from scientists—including him—that the increasingly devastating recent hurricanes "have fed off warmer surface waters," Mann explained that "a more stably stratified ocean potentially favors more intense, destructive hurricanes." Warmer waters also "absorb less atmospheric carbon dioxide" and "hold less dissolved oxygen."

In other words, the new study indicates that "humans have made the oceans more stable, and the result will be more extreme weather and the acceleration of climate change," as study co-author John Abraham wrote Monday for The Guardian. Like Mann, he detailed the research team's findings about the stratification of the oceans, and the implications. Then, he added:

It is not all doom and gloom. The good news is we know why the climate is changing and we know how the oceans are responding. We can do something about this problem—we have the ability to slow down climate change. We just lack the will and leadership.

But if 2020 has shown us anything, it has revealed that humans can change and adapt quickly to situations. There is hope that we can navigate the challenges resulting from a more stable ocean—but we must start immediately.

Both co-authors' pieces provoked calls for swift, bold, global efforts to address the climate crisis:

Ending his piece on a similar note, Mann wrote that "in short, it's unwise to be complacent given the accumulating scientific evidence that climate change and its impacts may well be in the upper end of the range that climate scientists currently project. There is ever-greater urgency when it comes to acting on climate. But there is agency as well. Our actions make a difference—something to keep in mind as we head into a presidential election whose climate implications are monumental."

Mann is on the mounting list of climate experts and advocates supporting Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden in his effort to oust President Donald Trump—who has, at various points, ignored and exacerbated the climate emergency. Earlier this month, the editors of Scientific American as well as the political action arms of both 350 and Friends of the Earth also endorsed the former vice president.

"The stakes are clear and present," Tamara Toles O'Laughlin from 350 Action said of the general election, for which early voting is already underway in some states. "The planet cannot withstand four more years of Trump."


Our work is licensed under Creative Commons (CC BY-NC-ND 3.0). Feel free to republish and share widely.

We've had enough. The 1% own and operate the corporate media. They are doing everything they can to defend the status quo, squash dissent and protect the wealthy and the powerful. The Common Dreams media model is different. We cover the news that matters to the 99%. Our mission? To inform. To inspire. To ignite change for the common good. How? Nonprofit. Independent. Reader-supported. Free to read. Free to republish. Free to share. With no advertising. No paywalls. No selling of your data. Thousands of small donations fund our newsroom and allow us to continue publishing. Can you chip in? We can't do it without you. Thank you.

Inspired by Starbucks Organizing Wins, Peet's Coffee Workers File for Union Elections

"We deserve a say in how our workplace is run and we deserve to be fairly compensated for the value we create," said one Peet's employee.

Jake Johnson ·


Rev. Barber Breaks Down Why Democrats Must Engage With Low-Wealth Voters

In future elections, said the co-chair of the Poor People's Campaign, Democrats must "focus clearly and intensely on poor and low-wealth voters who tend to, when they vote, vote progressive if they're targeted."

Julia Conley ·


Great Barrier Reef Belongs on World Heritage 'In Danger' List: UNESCO

"The path to saving the Great Barrier Reef is narrow, but it exists," said one observer. "Strong and rapid action can produce results."

Kenny Stancil ·


Because 'Publishing Is Not a Crime,' Major Newspapers Push US to Drop Assange Charges

"This indictment sets a dangerous precedent, and threatens to undermine America's First Amendment and the freedom of the press," The Guardian, The New York Times, and other media outlets warned.

Jake Johnson ·


Sanders Vows to 'Stand With Rail Workers' as Republican Says Congress Will Prevent Strike

"Last year, the rail industry made a record-breaking $20 billion in profits," Sen. Bernie Sanders noted. "Meanwhile, rail workers have ZERO guaranteed paid sick days."

Jake Johnson ·

Common Dreams Logo