(302) 703-7086

Mia Dorsch

Cape Henlopen HS, grade 12

Chemistry and Climate: H2O is getting HOT 

When June comes around, tourists and local students like myself flock to the Delaware Seashore. The moment I step onto the sand, I jump as if hopping on hot coals. Without fail, I sprint to the water, seeking refuge. In juxtaposition to the burning sand, the ocean is freezing and a cool relief to my burning feet. 

What causes this contrast? 

The chemistry behind it is to blame. The known specific heat capacity for water is 4.186 J/g °C. This means that 4.186 joules, a measurement of energy, is required to raise one gram of water by one degree celsius. On the contrary, sand’s capacity is approximately 0.290 J/g °C. This phenomenon explains why the sand heats up with the sun while the ocean lags months behind. Simply put, the beach sand requires less energy to heat up than the ocean. 

Unbeknownst to the average beach enthusiast, the ocean has actually been gaining heat. According to the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution, otherwise known as W.H.O.I., the temperature of the ocean has increased by approximately 1.5°F in the last century. This value may not appear striking at first, but this requires massive amounts of energy. W.H.O.I. attributes this increase to the vast majority of emissions from burned fossil fuels that the ocean has been absorbing since the 1970s. Many other man-made factors are also to blame for the increase in atmospheric energy, such as industrial pollution, the automobile industry, and even methane from cows. As Cape Henlopen High School’s chemistry teacher Dr. Peacock explains, “there’s nowhere for it [energy] to go.” The atmosphere does not have a “relief valve” to let go of these emissions, so the ocean is left to absorb it. 

While warmer water might be welcomed when the ocean feels like an ice bath to swimmers in the middle of June, this worldwide phenomenon is an environmental catastrophe that hits the heart of Southern Delaware and requires youth to take action. 

Beneath the waves, rising water temperatures aren’t as swell as they sound. Just off the coast of Sussex County lies a vital horseshoe crab spawning ground. Tourists can be seen taking pictures of them and dodging their discarded shells along the shoreline. I love finding these fascinating creatures on the coast of Broadkill Beach, and every year the Milton’s Chamber of Commerce hosts a popular festival to commemorate these special aquatic creatures. Rising sea temperatures, which mostly impact the surface of the water, pose a large risk to these native friends. The warmer water poses a threat to the survival of the horseshoe crabs’ eggs and puts their population’s reproduction at risk. 

Water also expands as the temperature increases, and when combined with increasing sea levels, the ocean threatens to eat away at our shores. The Environmental Protection Agency projects that in 2100, the sea level of Southern Delaware will have risen by three feet! This beach erosion is gnawing away at the spawning ground of our local horseshoe crabs. Comparatively speaking, this is like bulldozers plowing through your neighborhood! Humans are clearly leaving an impact far more nefarious than just footprints in the sand. 

The creeping, steeping sea not only impacts native wildlife, but local communities, as well. 

Featured in The Rehoboth Beach Historical Society and Museum is a photograph of the original Cape Henlopen Lighthouse that was reclaimed by unhappy waters in April, 1926. It was the second oldest lighthouse still standing in the U.S. at the time of its collapse. The ocean continues to overtake shorelines today and its volume is projected to rise further. If this pattern persists, more of Cape Henlopen’s historic landmarks will vanish like their predecessor. 

From beachfront to further inland, the ocean has been steadily eating away at the coastline where tourists line up their chairs and umbrellas. Southern Sussex County’s economy and workforce depend on travelers looking to enjoy Delaware’s unique access to the Atlantic Ocean. The deterioration of beaches threatens the prosperity of local business owners, who thrive off of tourism in the summertime, bringing in upwards of four billion dollars in 2021, according to From teens working at Funland to iconic family-owned establishments along the boardwalk, the warming and rising ocean poses a threat to the livelihoods of lower Delaware residents. 

In addition to its effects on the native ecosystem and local economy, a rising ocean temperature has been linked to an increase in severe weather. The warming waters have more energy and tend to evaporate more quickly, which supplies the atmosphere with the ingredients for more intense storms, including hurricanes. As Delaware is a coastal state, this poses an increased risk of flooding to many residents who live on the shore. Further inland, the flat landscapes and abundant wetlands also suffer with an influx of severe weather when the excess water has nowhere to drain. 

Warming water temperatures and rising tides are not exclusive to Southern Delaware. How do we work against the elements to combat this? 

As such a profound global issue, it could feel virtually impossible to make changes, especially for aspiring young activists. In order to prevent the ocean from pulling in excess energy, man-made sources of atmospheric pollution, such as carbon emissions, must be examined and evaluated. Some solutions would require major industry changes, as explained by Peacock. Altering or shutting down powerful energy producing entities, such as the automotive industry, which have a hand in the causes of ocean warming, would seem to be a reasonable solution. However, pulling away from fossil fuels and pushing towards cleaner energy sources would be not only costly but put many jobs at risk. This is the moral dilemma inherent in climate change initiatives. 

This isn’t to say that any attempts at mitigating the human influence on our climate are futile. “You guys are the ones inheriting this planet,” Peacock warns her AP Chemistry students, illustrating that the impacts of these climbing ocean temperatures, as well as many other environmental concerns, are left for upcoming generations to combat. The best solution, she suggests, is raising awareness. Consider it our activation energy to spark a reaction that encourages youth to utilize their unique skills and knowledge to facilitate change. 

Environmentally conscious reform rests in the hands of today’s consumers, particularly the youth. Our daily actions have an impact on this planet that is often not immediately detectable, so it is this generation’s responsibility to stay well-informed in order to make decisions with our ecosystem in mind. Peacock urges her young chemists to “have conversations about this based on long-term consequences, not just short term desires.” This could mean small concessions like choosing to use a reusable bag instead of a plastic one to cut down on waste or purchasing an electric car over a gas-guzzler to reduce emissions. Often, environmentally friendly options are more expensive, but informing oneself is just as valuable. Students must learn how to conduct proper research and filter out fake information that frequently floods our social media feeds. Developing critical thinking skills as students is essential and striving to understand the chemistry behind the catalysts of climate change will lead to a more balanced relationship between the elements. 

If we want to continue to take refuge in the frigid ocean on a hot summer’s day, we must all work together in helping the planet keep its cool. 


Mooney, Chris, and Brady Dennis. “Warming Oceans Break Heat Record for Fourth Year in a Row, Researchers Say.” Washington Post, 01/13 2023. ProQuest; SIRS Issues Researcher, 5. 

Ocean warming. Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. (2021, August 3). ~:text=Since%201971%2C%20the%20ocean%20has,takes%20most%20of%20this%20h eat 

Peacock, Rachel PhD. Interview. Conducted by Mia Dorsch February 23, 2024. 

Pierre-Louis, Kendra. “Ocean Temperatures Rising Faster, As Are Fears.” New York Times, 01/11 2019. ProQuest; SIRS Issues Researcher, 5. 

What climate change means for Delaware. (n.d.-b). -change-de.pdf 


  • Leave a Reply

    Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *