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The Oceans are getting warmer and we should be bothered

oceans are getting warmer

Since the early 1980s, record-keeping has shown that the global average for the world’s ocean surfaces has experienced seasonal fluctuations between 19.7°C and 21°C (67.5°F and 69.8°F). However, in recent times, there has been an unprecedented and extreme temperature spike. According to Robert Rohde, the lead scientist at Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit organization focused on climate data, this deviation from the trajectory is surprising. Typically, when a warming event occurs, it surpasses the previous record by a small margin. But currently, the temperatures are significantly higher than previous records for this time of year.

What are we seeing?

The warming trend can be observed, where sea surface temperatures usually begin to decline in March as the Southern Hemisphere transitions from summer to autumn. As the southern oceans cool, they bring down the average global sea surface temperature due to the vast amount of ocean coverage in that hemisphere. However, at present, temperature anomalies are widespread across the world’s oceans. Near-real-time data collected from satellites, buoys, and other ocean instruments indicate that above-average temperatures are prevalent almost everywhere. In particular, a significant heat wave has persisted in the North Pacific for several months.

Further, warming of the Atlantic Ocean may be contributing to the extreme heat experienced in Spain and other parts of the globe, highlighting the broader issue caused by high ocean temperatures. The heat absorbed by the oceans from human-induced climate change can be transferred back to the atmosphere, which subsequently affects land temperatures. Both the atmosphere and the oceans are experiencing a continuous increase in temperature. If the atmosphere influences the ocean, the ocean will push back into the atmosphere, intensifying the warming process.

In a study conducted last year, researchers established that climate change has made extreme heat events in the ocean the new normal. By analyzing historical data collected from ships worldwide between 1870 and 1919, they set a baseline for extreme temperatures. They discovered that in the 19th century, only 2 percent of the ocean experienced these extreme heat events, whereas now, due to climate change, it has risen to 57 percent. Although scientists have not determined the exact contribution of climate change to the current surface temperature anomaly, they have observed a long-term trend of increasing intensity in sea surface temperature anomalies since the early 1900s.

The Consequences

The consequences of warmer ocean temperatures are already evident. Higher ocean temperatures are rapidly eroding Antarctica’s massive ice shelves, and the expansion of warmer water is causing rising sea levels. Currently, the Pacific waters off the coast of South America are exceptionally warm, creating an unusual “coastal El Niño” unrelated to the larger El Niño phenomenon with global climate implications. The occurrence of El Niño, characterized by warm water development across the Pacific, can have varying effects on precipitation. While it can lead to increased rainfall in Peru, it can cause devastating drought in the Amazon rainforest. Additionally, the elevated heat in the Pacific could significantly contribute to global temperature rise, potentially making 2023 the warmest year on record, especially if an El Niño event occurs, as predicted.

Warmer waters, whether caused by El Niño or long-term heating, can adversely affect the biological productivity of the ocean. Some organisms reaching their thermal limits may migrate to colder waters, disrupting ecosystems in both their departure and arrival areas. However, other organisms, such as corals, are unable to relocate and suffer from increased heat, resulting in coral bleaching. The ocean food chain relies on the natural circulation of water, which is influenced by temperature. Cold water upwelling from the depths brings up nutrients that nourish phytoplankton, a vital food source for zooplankton. When surface waters heat up and stratify, it hampers the upwelling process, reducing nutrient availability. This poses long-term concerns about how overall ocean heating will impact natural fertilization processes like upwelling and whether the ocean will become less productive over time.

What can we do?

The unprecedented and extreme warming of the world’s oceans demands attention. Monitoring and understanding these temperature anomalies are crucial for comprehending the effects on ecosystems, climate patterns, and the future of our planet. Addressing the underlying causes of climate change and adopting sustainable practices are essential steps toward mitigating further damage to our oceans and the interconnected systems they support.

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