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'Omen of the Future': Off-The-Charts Hot Oceans Scare Scientists

From Jessica Corbett,
February 2024

After 2023 was the hottest year in human history, experts warn that 2024 has strong potential to be another record-breaking year.

A diver looks at one of the coral nurseries on the reefs of the Society Islands in French Polynesia, where major bleaching is occurring. (Photo: Alexis Rosenfeld/Getty Images, May 2019).

While global policymakers continue to drag their feet on phasing out planet-heating fossil fuels, scientists around the world "are freaking out" about high ocean temperatures, as they toldThe New York Times in reporting published Tuesday.

A "super El Niño" has expectedly heated up the Pacific, but Times reporter David Gelles spoke with ocean experts from Miami to Cambridge to Sydney about record heat in the North Atlantic as well as conditions around the poles.

"The sea ice around the Antarctic is just not growing," said Matthew England, a University of New South Wales professor who studies ocean currents. "The temperature's just going off the charts. It's like an omen of the future."

Rob Larter, a marine geophysicist with the British Antarctic Survey who watches polar ice levels, told the paper that "we're used to having a fairly good handle on things. But the impression at the moment is that things have gone further and faster than we expected. That's an uncomfortable place as a scientist to be."

Last week, Jeff Berardelli, WFLA's chief meteorologist and climate specialist, also highlighted the warm North Atlantic and that "all signs are pointing to a busy hurricane season" later this year.

Noting that in the middle of this month, sea surface temperatures in the North Atlantic were around 2°F higher than the 1990-2020 normal and nearly 3°F above the 1980s, Berardelli explained:

That may not sound like a lot, but consider this is averaged over the majority of the basin shown in the red outline in the image above. A deviation like that is unheard of... until now.

To put it into more relatable terms, considering what's been normal for the most recent 30 years, the statistical chance that any February day would be as warm as it is right now is 1-in-280,000. That's not a typo. This is according to University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy...

And that 1-in-280,000 is compared against a recent climate, which had already been warmed substantially by climate change. If you tried to compare it against a climate considered normal around the year 1900, the math would become nonsensical. Meaning an occurrence like this simply would not be possible.

McNoldy also stressed the shocking nature of current conditions to the Times, telling Gelles that "the North Atlantic has been record-breakingly warm for almost a year now... It's just astonishing. Like, it doesn't seem real."

The new comments from McNoldy and other scientists come on the heels of various institutions and experts worldwide recently confirming that 2023 was the hottest year in human history. Research also showed that it was the warmest year on record for the oceans, which capture about 91% of excess heat from greenhouse gases.

As Common Dreams reported last month, Adam Scaife, a principal fellow at the United Kingdom's Met Office, said that "it is striking that the temperature record for 2023 has broken the previous record set in 2016 by so much because the main effect of the current El Niño will come in 2024."

That's the warm phase of the El Niño Southern Oscillation, a climate phenomenon that also has a cool phase called La Niña expected later this year. Still, Scaife warned that "the Met Office's 2024 temperature forecast shows this year has strong potential to be another record-breaking year."

Throughout the record-shattering 2023, experts also expressed alarm. After an April study showed that the ocean is heating up faster than previously thought, the BBCrevealed that some scientists declined to speak about it on the record, reporting that "one spoke of being 'extremely worried and completely stressed.'"

In July, when a buoy roughly 40 miles south of Miami recorded a sea surface temperature of 101.1°F just after a "100% coral mortality" event at a restoration site, Florida State University associate professor Mariana Fuentes toldNPR that "if you have several species that are being impacted at the same time by an increase in temperature, there's going to be a general collapse of the whole ecosystem."

The following month, the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service announced that the average daily global ocean surface temperature hit 69.7°F, and deputy director Samantha Burgess said, "The fact that we've seen the record now makes me nervous about how much warmer the ocean may get between now and next March."

"The more we burn fossil fuels, the more excess heat will be taken out by the oceans, which means the longer it will take to stabilize them and get them back to where they were," Burgess emphasized at the time.

Last year ended with a United Nations climate summit that scientists called "a tragedy for the planet," because the final deal out of the conference—led by an Emirati oil CEO—did not demand a global phaseout of fossil fuels.

Azerbaijan, which is set to host this year's U.N. conference in November, has similarly selected a former fossil fuel executive to lead the event. The country also plans to increase its gas production by a third during the next decade.

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