Earth surface and energy uptake in the climate system

I recently came across this striking graphic from Visual Capitalist illustrating the partitioning of Earths surface:

It made me think of regenerative agriculture … and wonder which countries we should focus on? If the largest 6 countries would change their agricultural or land use practices would it be sufficient to make a planetary impact? All have quite large areas of non-agricultural land, but for example in Brazil there is concern that deforestation of the Amazon basin will reach a point where it can no longer support a rain forest. And what about making seaweed our staple food … seems reasonable?

It also nicely illustrates a fact that many of us know: that the Earth surface is about 70% ocean.  A lesser known ocean fact is that about 90% of the excess energy accumulated by the climate system from 1971 to 2010 due to human greenhouse gas emissions has been absorbed by the ocean. After the ocean, the extra energy has been consumed by melting ice and warming the continental land mass. Atmospheric warming comes next. What this means is that the rising atmospheric temperatures are just the “tip of the iceberg” of energy change in our climate system, as is well illustrated in IPCC graphic 3.1:

The plot shows the energy in Zeta Joules (1 ZJ = 1021 J) that has been accumulated in different components of the Earth’s climate system from 1971 to 2010 unless otherwise indicated. Ocean warming (the change in heat content) dominates, with the upper ocean (light blue, above 700 m) contributing more than the mid-depth and deep ocean (dark blue, below 700 m) because it takes time to stir the water to greater depth. Uncertainty in the ocean estimate also dominates the total uncertainty (dot-dashed lines about the error from all five components at 90% confidence intervals).

Highlighting a classic challenge in earth science data, its worth noting that not all the data in this plot was available as far back as 1971: Estimates of ocean heat below 2000 m start from 1992; though glacier melt records start in 1971, Greenland and Antarctic ice sheet estimates of melt start from 1992, and Arctic sea ice data is from 1979 to 2008; the atmospheric warming estimate starts from 1979.


You can explore more data on landuse from Our World in Data here:

About lindsey

Environmental scientist. I am glaciologist specialising in glacier-climate interactions to better understand the climate system. The point of this is to understand how glaciated envionments might change in the future - how the glaciers will respond and what the impact on associated water resources and hazard potential will be.
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