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Links to this page may be made without permission. From space, Earth resembles a beautiful blue marble orbiting the sun. The blue, of course, is the color of the vast ocean covering nearly 71 percent of Earth’s surface. For those living close to the ocean, it can be a source of great beauty and sustenance. Many people’s livelihoods depend on the ocean, but it can also unleash destructive forces such as hurricanes that can devastate communities. Yet the ocean has also shaped Earth and its climate in far more profound ways.
Life most likely originated in the ocean, and over hundreds of millions of years, the vast numbers of organisms the ocean supports have shaped the composition of the atmosphere. The ocean stores huge quantities of energy, and heat exchange between ocean and atmosphere drives the winds and atmospheric circulation around the world. Without an ocean, Earth would be a far different place. The following are some of the most important examples of why.
Life in the ocean has produced vast layers of limestone and marble rock. El Capitan, Capitan Reef, Guadaloupe Mountains National Park, Texas. This is a coral reef from the Permian period. Mark Eberle, Fort Hayes State University. For insights into what Earth might be like if there had never been an ocean, hop over to Venus where a runaway greenhouse effect has rendered the surface hot enough to melt lead. The most abundant gas in Venus’s atmosphere is carbon dioxide, a gas that is transparent to sunlight but absorbs heat radiating back towards space. In contrast, carbon dioxide makes up only 0.
To understand why the two atmospheres differ so drastically, look to the ocean and the life it supports. Photosynthetic organisms, whether they are single-celled phytoplankton floating on or near the ocean surface or plants growing on land, take up carbon dioxide from the environment and use the sun’s energy to build carbohydrates. This process releases oxygen, which is the source of oxygen in the atmosphere. Some parts of organisms resist decomposition. Many aquatic organisms, from plankton to corals to mollusks, build skeletons or shells made of calcium carbonate. Over millions of years, pressure and heat cement some of these calcium carbonate remains into rocks such as limestone, dolomite, and marble, locking up vast quantities of carbon.
Because these remains don’t decompose, oxygen remains in the environment. Many prominent geological features are built from the remains of marine organisms. In other cases, especially in the ocean, sediment buries the remains of organisms. Deprived of oxygen needed for decomposition, these remains may transform into deposits of coal, oil, and natural gas, locking up more carbon. By burning these fossil fuels for energy, we are putting the carbon dioxide back into the environment. For scientists to understand climate, they must also determine what drives the changes within the Earth’s radiation balance. The image above is from April 2001.
The water cycle circulates both water and energy throughout Earth’s system. The cycle begins with evaporation of water from the surface. Evaporation of water is the source of atmospheric moisture that carries heat energy away from Earth’s surface. The major circulation systems of the Earth are illustrated above.