What This Year’s ‘Astonishing’ Ocean Heat Means for the Planet
6F 0 +6 +9 Atlantic Ocean Pacific Ocean Pacific Ocean Indian Ocean Sea Surface Temperature Anomaly on July 31, 2023 6F 0 +6 +9 Brutal heat waves have baked the world this summer and they havent been contained to land. Earths oceans are the hottest they have been in modern history, by an unusually wide margin. July 31, 2023 69.8 F 69.5 F 69.0 68.5 1991-2020 average 68.0 All other years 1982-2022 67.5 Nov. 1 Sep. 1 July 1 May 1 Mar. 1 Jan. 1 Dec. 31 July 31, 2023 69.8 F 69.5 F 69.0 68.5 1991-2020 average 68.0 All other years 1982-2022 67.5 Sep. 1 May 1 Jan. 1 Dec. 31 Source: , Climate Change Institute at the University of Maine, based on data from NOAA Optimum Interpolation Sea Surface Temperature (OISST) Note: Average sea surface temperatures for ocean areas between 60 degrees north and 60 degrees south latitude are shown. The planets average sea surface temperature spiked to a record high in April and the ocean has remained exceptionally warm ever since. In July, drove temperatures back up to near-record highs, with some hot spots nearing 100 degrees Fahrenheit, or nearly 38 Celsius. I find it kind of astonishing, said Gregory Johnson, an oceanographer at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, referring to this years trend. This is a pretty big step up. The North Atlantic has seen some of the most exceptional warmth, with recent temperatures consistently reaching more than 2 degrees Fahrenheit, or 1.1 Celsius, higher than what is typical for this time of year. Taking a dip in the waters off the coast of the Florida Keys could, at times, feel like stepping into a hot tub. Last week, one reading from a buoy , or just over 38 Celsius, possibly a world record for sea surface temperatures. The extreme heat is , but high ocean temperatures can have more widespread impacts, too, and the communities that depend on them. El Nino, a recurring global climate pattern that is typically linked to warmer conditions in many regions, arrived in June, and is one contributor to the spike in global sea surface temperatures, said Michelle LHeureux, a climate scientist with NOAAs Climate Prediction Center. But the underlying influence of human-driven climate change is undeniable, she added. Global sea surface temperatures have been increasing , when humans began sharply increasing the amount of greenhouse gases pumped into the atmosphere. This years spike in global sea surface temperatures is concerning, but it is not exactly unexpected in a warming world, said Zeke Hausfather, a climate scientist at Berkeley Earth, a nonprofit research institute. Global climate models have projected how oceans could heat up if we continue to pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere at roughly our current rate, and Julys high sea surface temperatures falls within the expected range, though at the higher end. Projected sea surface temperature compared with a 1991-2020 baseline +4 F +3 July 2023 +2 +1 Range projected by climate models 0 1 Average of models 2 1850 1900 1950 2000 2050 2100 +4 F +3 July 2023 +2 +1 Range projected by climate models 0 1 Average of models 2 1850 1900 1950 2000 2050 2100 Source: Zeke Hausfather, using climate model data from Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, accessed through the World Meteorological Organizations KNMI Climate Explorer Note: Chart shows the very likely range of model projections across 40 in the SSP2-4.5 scenario. In the North Atlantic, however, temperatures have been warmer than climate models projected. That suggests something somewhat extraordinary may be happening there, Dr. Hausfather said. Experts have speculated that other factors, in addition to human-caused climate change and the arrival of El Nino, could be contributing to this years exceptional ocean heat. Some have suggested that international rules aimed at reducing air pollution from maritime shipping could have inadvertently increased ocean warming. Others point to the over the North Atlantic this year, which can also have a cooling effect by blocking sunlight. The eruption of an underwater volcano in the Pacific Ocean near Tonga last year, which into the stratosphere, may have also influenced this years ocean temperatures. Water vapor, like carbon dioxide, is a greenhouse gas that traps heat near Earths surface. But early analyses have so far suggested that for all of this years extra warming. The level of warmth we are seeing today is only possible because of the warming over the past 150 years due to human activity, Dr. Hausfather said. Scientists expect warm ocean conditions to continue into the fall, with El Nino intensifying in the months ahead. While sea surface readings take the temperature of the top layer of the ocean, up to a few hundred feet deep, climate scientists have also been charting how much heat is being absorbed by the ocean as a whole. In short: A lot. 300 200 Ocean Land Ice Atmosphere 100 zettajoules 1960 1970 1980 1990 2000 2010 2020 Ocean Land 300 Ice Atmosphere 200 100 zettajoules 1960 1980 2000 2020 Source: von Schuckmann, et al., Note: The chart does not show the range of uncertainty. In 2020, the total system had accumulated 381 zettajoules of heat energy with an uncertainty range of +/- 61 zettajoules. The ocean, which covers about 70 percent of the worlds surface, has absorbed more than 90 percent of the heat unleashed by the burning of fossil fuels, deforestation and other human activity. Put another way, the majority of the human-driven warming that has happened on Earth over the past six decades has accumulated in the ocean. But water has a much higher capacity than land to absorb and store all that heat. The ocean has been doing us a big service by delaying global warming considerably, Dr. Johnson said, but it comes at a cost. As the ocean stores more heat, its water expands, contributing to sea level rise. Warmer ocean temperatures also provide more fodder for tropical cyclones and . By the end of the century, ocean warming could contribute to a weakening, or even a shutdown, of the Atlantic ocean currents that help regulate the climate for a swath of the planet, . In many ways, Dr. Hausfather said, the ocean is the most accurate thermometer we have for the actual effect of climate change, because its where most of the heat ends up. Source for the top map: NOAA Optimum Interpolation Sea Surface Temperature (OISST) | Note: Temperature anomalies in the map are calculated using a 1971-2000 baseline.