The text on this site is presented as an archival version of the script of "Ocean Planet," a 1995 Smithsonian Institution traveling exhibition. The content reflects the state of knowledge at the time of the exhibition, and has not been updated.

Through computer models, scientists are working to understand how increases in carbon dioxide and other "greenhouse" gases in the atmosphere might change the earth's climate. § But so far, complex interactions between oceans, atmosphere, land, and the sun have made precise climatic predictions impossible. §

What we do know is that human activities--burning fossil fuels and vegetation--have put a greater volume of greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, and have put all of us into a global experiment with an unknown outcome. §

Oceans are crucial in shaping climate because they store and move heat around the planet, and they're a major source and storehouse for gases (such as carbon dioxide) that affect climate § §.
It's not fully understood how much carbon dioxide the oceans can absorb and store.

photo © Luc Cuyvers

What if climate change warms the oceans?

Storms might rage
If oceans grow warmer, more and stronger hurricanes and typhoons could hit coastal North America and the Far East--but most predictions are that the greatest warming would occur in higher latitudes, outside the hurricane belt §.
photo © by Mark J. Rauzon

Shores might be submerged §
Sea level would rise if the oceans warmed, because water expands as it heats up. If polar ice caps melted, sea level would rise further. A rise of even a few centimeters would flood low-lying islands and coastal cities.
photo © Jeff Rotman

Coral reefs might die back §
Coral's colors (and some of their energy) come from algae living within coral tissue. Too much heat causes coral to expel the algae. Although warming could cause coral "bleaching" in some areas, it could also expand areas of warm water that corals need to grow.
photo © Bob Cranston

Weather Advisory

More greenhouse gases could be too much of a good thing

Life is possible because water vapor, carbon dioxide and other gases trap heat radiating from the earth's surface. Without these natural atmospheric gases, the planet's average temperature would be far below freezing.

Burning coal, oil, and gas (and forests and grasslands) releases carbon dioxide. The volume of this and other heat-trapping gases in the atmosphere has grown 25 percent since the Industrial Revolution, around 1860 §. It's possible that increases in greenhouse gases could lead to regional and global climate changes.

Climate savers work on many fronts

Scientists are studying the oceans' role in climate and weather, while cooperation between governments, industries, and consumers is already leading to energy conservation that will cut greenhouse-gas emissions.

Several international research programs on interactions between the ocean and atmosphere began gathering extensive data on the oceans in the 1980s, using satellites, research ships, aircraft and research buoys. §

World Ocean Circulation Experiment (WOCE), collects data for computer models to predict climate change and its relationship to ocean circulation §.

Tropical Ocean/Global Atmosphere Program (TOGA) collects data on interactions between the tropical oceans and the atmosphere, for computer models that will predict climate changes, especially related to El Ni o § §.

Joint Global Ocean Flux Study (JGOFS) studies the role of marine organisms and chemistry to better understand how oceans and the atmosphere exchange carbon dioxide, and how carbon is transferred to the deep sea § §.

Forgoing fossil fuels will reduce greenhouse gases

Switching to more energy-efficient technologies is the quickest and cheapest way to help reduce greenhouse gases. Renewable energy resources such as wind, fuel from plant and animal matter, and solar power, could also help. These technologies aren't science fiction: many already work. The U.S. wind-power industry in 1992 generated enough electricity to have satisfied the residential needs of San Francisco and Washington, D.C. §

Conserving energy at home helps
Compact fluorescent bulbs use only one-fourth as much electricity as conventional incandescent bulbs. Although socket-type fluorescent bulbs are more expensive, they last about thirteen times longer and save about three times more than they cost, over the bulb's life. §
photo © Philips Lighting Company

More Information

International Treaties Concerning the Environment and Climate Change

Ocean Planet Exhibition Floorplan

gene carl feldman ( (301) 286-9428
Judith Gradwohl, Smithsonian Institution (Curator/Ocean Planet)