Energy of '25 billion atomic bombs' trapped on Earth in just 50 years, all because of global warming
A new study has revealed that 380 zettajoules of energy was trapped by global warming between 1971 and 2020.
Global warming has trapped an explosive amount of energy in Earth's atmosphere in the past half century — the equivalent of about 25 billion atomic bombs, a new study finds.
In the paper, published April 17 in the journal Earth System Science Data, an international group of researchers estimated that, between 1971 and 2020, around 380 zettajoules — that is, 380,000,000,000,000,000,000,000 joules — of energy has been trapped by global warming.
Such a big number is hard to put into context. But two researchers, who were not involved in the study, have put it into perspective by comparing the energy to that released by nukes. However, even then, the amount is still hard to wrap your head around.
In an article for The Conversation, Andrew King, a climate scientist at the University of Melbourne in Australia, and Steven Sherwood, a climate scientist at the University of New South Wales in Sydney, calculated that 380 zettajoules is equivalent to around 25 billion times the energy released during the detonation of "Little Boy," the atomic bomb dropped on Hiroshima, Japan, on Aug. 6, 1945.
Even more mind-blowing, the energy absorbed by the planet during this time period likely equates to only around 60% of total greenhouse gas emissions, so the actual number is even higher, King and Sherwood wrote.
Related: Climate 'points of no return' may be much closer than we thought
But such a large amount of energy is also puzzling, because based on that amount of heat being trapped in the atmosphere, the average global temperature should have risen by dozens of degrees since preindustrial times, rather than by the 2.2 degrees Fahrenheit (1.2 degrees Celsius) that we have observed, the pair wrote. So where has all this extra energy gone?
According to the study, the oceans have absorbed around 89% of the energy (338.2 zettajoules), land has absorbed 6% (22.8 zettajoules), 4% (15.2 zettajoules) has melted parts of the cryosphere — the part of Earth's climate system that includes snow, sea ice, freshwater ice, icebergs, glaciers and ice caps, ice sheets, ice shelves and permafrost — and just 1% (3.8 zettajoules) has remained in the atmosphere.
The majority of the heat absorbed by the seas is trapped in the upper 0.6 mile (1 kilometer) of the oceans. This has spared humanity from the brunt of climate change so far, but it has also caused massive increases in sea surface temperatures, which has accelerated polar melting, damaged marine ecosystems, increased the severity of tropical storms and begun to disrupt ocean currents.
However, the oceans will not protect our planet forever, King and Sherwood wrote, so we must begin rapidly decreasing greenhouse gas emissions by decarbonizing the global economy to ensure our future survival. "We're in a race, and the stakes are as high as they could possibly be — ensuring a liveable climate for our children and for nature," they wrote.
Live Science newsletter
Stay up to date on the latest science news by signing up for our Essentials newsletter.
Harry is a U.K.-based staff writer at Live Science. He studied Marine Biology at the University of Exeter (Penryn campus) and after graduating started his own blog site "Marine Madness," which he continues to run with other ocean enthusiasts. He is also interested in evolution, climate change, robots, space exploration, environmental conservation and anything that's been fossilized. When not at work he can be found watching sci-fi films, playing old Pokemon games or running (probably slower than he'd like).
By Briley Lewis
By Harry Baker
Let us, for the fun of it, say that humans manages to lower their reintroduction of CO2 to 0%.
That means that it would take 25 years for it to be missing 1 year of CO2 from humans.
the planet still produces 94% of the CO2.
so how will limiting 4% make anything stop?