This Ocean Temperature Map Ought to Frighten You

This Ocean Temperature Map Ought to Frighten You

The water would feel very cold if you were to dip your toes in the center of the North Atlantic, which is, say, between South Carolina and Spain. It would be unwise for you to swim. Winter is here.

But, in comparison, such water would actually be extremely warm. The average temperature of the North Atlantic Ocean is currently 2 degrees Fahrenheit higher than it has been over the previous three decades, making it the warmest period on record.

Look at the chart below to get a sense of exactly how rare this is. The sea surface temperature, averaged throughout the North Atlantic from 1981 to the present, is represented by the wave of squiggly lines; each squiggle corresponds to a distinct year.

The orange-red line, which is thick and spans the whole chart, is from 2023; it is situated above almost all other lines. In March of last year, the North Atlantic began to smash heat temperature records.

The shift that the new, shorter line from 2024 signifies is even more concerning. It’s far higher than the others, suggesting that this year’s extraordinary, unusual spike has persisted.

“It’s significantly warmer than it ever has been for this time of year,” Brian McNoldy, a climate researcher at the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School, told. “This is deeply troubling,” he recently wrote on X.

Scientists suggest that today’s marine ecosystems are not the only ones affected by all this heat. It serves as a warning about future events that can endanger human life.

Why is the Atlantic getting warmer?

One indication that the globe is warming up overall is a warm Atlantic. Other people exist: Much of the United States is seeing a “lost winter” this year due to unusually mild temperatures (Minneapolis-St. Paul hit a record 65 degrees this week). NASA, on the other hand, just verified that 2023 was the warmest year ever recorded.

The earth has already warmed by more than 1.5 degrees Celsius, exceeding the 1.5 degrees Celsius threshold set by the 2015 Paris Agreement to prevent the worst effects of climate change, according to a recent study published in the journal Nature Climate Change. (The study’s focus was on sea sponges, a broad class of incredibly cool and practical marine creatures.)

Our farms, power plants, and cars are the main sources of the heat-trapping greenhouse gases that are causing global warming. It’s amazing that the oceans absorb about 90% of the extra temperature; without them, we’d be in considerably more danger.

As colleague Umair Irfan writes, a few more hidden factors contribute to the explanation of why temperatures in the North Atlantic, in particular, have been so high. For example, there has been less wind in some parts of the Atlantic. In addition to chilling the ocean’s surface, that wind carries sand and dust from the Sahara into the ocean, where it reflects sunlight back into space, thereby assisting in the ocean’s cooling process. Paradoxically, a decrease in air pollution could be contributing to the warming of the ocean, which is ultimately a positive thing.

An ocean that’s too hot to handle?

The phytoplankton! The fish! The cetaceans! And ideally, you as well!

Although wildlife often adapts well to environmental change, the rate of global warming is too rapid. It’s changing the size, distribution, and maybe even the color of plankton populations, which are made up of microscopic marine organisms that are vital to all marine life. For example, the plankton that threatened North Atlantic right whales consume is migrating northward, and the whales are following suit. This reduces the usefulness of some protected zones that are locked in space and restrict activities that damage whales.

Some fish are getting smaller due to the heat. Conversely, some fisheries are moving toward the poles and, in certain situations, are pushing them into new political regions. That poses a challenge to both the $253 billion US fishing sector and the people who consume seafood. Furthermore, as I all too well know, ocean heat has the power to destroy coral reefs in a matter of hours, endangering the massive fishing and tourism sectors that these ecosystems sustain.

A warm Atlantic winter may potentially portend a weak hurricane season this year. This month, meteorologist Jeff Berardelli noted, “Warm February sea surface temperatures do often correlate with active hurricane seasons.” El Niño may change into La Niña, a weather phenomena that produces storm conditions in the Atlantic, in the upcoming months, according to forecasts. “Every indication suggests a busy hurricane season,” stated Berardelli.

Thus, yes. Extremely hot seas are bad.

Sadly, predictions also imply that the unusual warmth in the North Atlantic is unlikely to end anytime soon, according to McNoldy. The already warm water in some areas of the Atlantic, including the Caribbean, is expected to get significantly hotter come summertime, which once more signals a dangerous season for hurricanes and coral reefs.

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