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Earth's climate is powered by energy from the sun. Over the course of a year, Earth's surface absorbs about 240 watts of solar energy per square meter. Photo courtesy of NASA Earth Observatory.

The sun is Earth’s primary energy source, bombarding our planet with solar rays daily. Weather is driven by the sun’s energy. The sun's energy also makes the planet warm enough for life and drives photosynthesis. While much of this energy is reflected or radiated back into space, a great deal is absorbed by the ocean. The equator receives more solar radiation than the poles because Earth is a sphere. Due to this uneven solar heat distribution, the atmosphere and ocean work constantly to even out heating imbalances. This occurs through the evaporation of surface water, convection, rainfall, ocean circulation and wind. The combined atmosphere and ocean circulation are termed Earth’s heat engine.

The ocean covers 79 percent of Earth and contains about 97 percent of Earth’s water. The ocean can absorb and release a lot of heat with little change in temperature. It absorbs heat from the atmosphere during the summer and releases it in the winter.

The level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen by about 30 percent since the Industrial Revolution. Because carbon dioxide absorbs radiation emitted by Earth's surface, this energy is trapped in the atmosphere instead of being reflected into outer space. The result is that the greenhouse effect is strengthened and heat in Earth's atmosphere is rising. 

Scientists suggest that much of the increased heat is being absorbed by the deep ocean. Looking at the temperature of ocean basins, one will see that the ocean has been warming much faster than the atmosphere. Scientists are concerned about how increased ocean temperatures will impact plants and animals. They also want to know how the ocean absorbs, stores and moves heat within the ocean system. Most importantly, scientists want to know how the heat stored in the ocean will impact climate in the future.

Note: This module is based on the NASA Visualization Explorer Application, The Water Cycle: Heating the Ocean.

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