To many of us, the ocean just looks like a fun way to take in some swimming or sailing, or to just take in some of the amazing views they provide from the beach, the deck of a house or the railing of a cruise ship. But to climate scientists, they mean so much more to our daily lives. The ocean, to use an expression from NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory, performs like a "global thermostat," taking in heat from the sun and keeping our planet's temperature in relative balance. It makes sense for oceans to be able to exert influence on such a massive scale. After all, they cover more than 70 percent of the Earth [source: NASA JPL].
Just like plants, oceans absorb carbon-dioxide from the atmosphere, thereby bringing down the temperature. On the other hand, the oceans also emit heat from the sunlight they absorb and increase the temperature of the surrounding atmosphere. The cycle of cooling and heating is constant, helping maintain a stable temperature all around. Even cloud cover, and the cooling it provides, comes from oceans, as they emit cloud-forming water vapor.
Scientists use satellites, as well as more direct methods, to take the measurements that help them study the relationship between the ocean and the atmosphere. The relationship isn't always peaceful and cozy, however. For example, the interaction between the ocean and the air is the cause of El Niño, a whopper of a climate effect that can impact global weather patterns, influence the development of hurricanes and floods and affect global temperatures -- up or down -- in swings of up to 0.4 degrees F (0.2 degrees C). It crops up in the Pacific Ocean every four to 12 years or so, and when it does meteorologists tend to know they're going to be busy [source: NASA JPL].
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