5 Things to Know About Earth’s Warming Oceans
By Tara Lohan
Part of Joellen Russell's job is to help illuminate the deep darkness — to shine a light on what's happening beneath the surface of the ocean. And it's one of the most important jobs in the world right now.
Russell is a professor of biogeochemical dynamics at the University of Arizona. From that dry, landlocked state, she's become a leading expert on how the climate is changing in the Southern Ocean — those vast, dark waters swirling around Antarctica.
"This is an age of scientific discovery," she says. But also, "it's very scary what we're finding out."
Researchers like Russell have been ringing alarm bells in report after report warning that the world's ocean waters are dangerously warming. Most of the heat trapped by the greenhouse gas emissions we've spewed into the air for decades has actually been absorbed by the ocean. Over the past 25 years, that heat amounts to the equivalent of exploding 3.6 billion Hiroshima-sized atom bombs, according to Lijing Cheng of the Chinese Academy of Sciences and lead author of a new study on ocean warming.
Now we're beginning to witness the cascading repercussions of that oceanic warming — from supercharged storms to dying coral reefs to crashing fisheries.
There's still a lot left to learn about these problems, but here's a look at some of the top findings from researchers, along with what they hope to uncover next.
1. Yes, It’s Definitely Getting Warmer
There's no doubt among scientists that the ocean is heating and we're driving it.
The latest confirmation is the study by Cheng and colleagues, published this month in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences, which bluntly stated, "Ocean heating is irrefutable and a key measure of the Earth's energy imbalance."
The study found ocean waters in 2019 were the warmest in recorded history. And that follows a pattern: The past decade has also seen the warmest 10 years of ocean temperatures, and the last five years have been the five warmest on record.
"Every year the ocean waters get warmer, and the reason is because of the heat-trapping gases that humans have emitted into the atmosphere," says John Abraham, one of the study's coauthors and a professor in mechanical engineering at the University of St. Thomas. "It's concerning for sure."
2. The Southern Ocean Has Been Hit Worst
Much of this warming occurs between the surface and a depth of 6,500 feet. It's happening pretty consistently across the globe, but some areas have experienced higher rates of warming. One of those is the Southern Ocean, which has acted as a giant sink, absorbing 43 percent of our oceanic CO2 emissions and 75 percent of the heat, scientists have concluded.
That's because the ocean basin functions like an air conditioner for the planet, says Russell. Strong winds pull up cold water from deep below, and then the cold surface water takes up some heat from the air. When the winds slow, the water sinks, more cold water rises, and the process repeats.
"The sinking water isn't warm, per se, just a bit warmer than it was when the wind pulled it up," she says. "In this way the Southern Ocean can sequester a lot of heat well below the surface."
For that reason what happens in the Southern Ocean is globally important. And it makes new findings all the more concerning.
Normal upwelling of waters from deep in the Southern Ocean has traditionally brought nutrients to the surface, where they then get moved by the Antarctic Circumpolar Current, the world's strongest ocean current, to feed marine life in other areas. But new research from Russell and colleagues found that this process will be disrupted as warm waters cause the Southern Ocean's ice sheets to melt even faster. This will change the historical upwelling and could trap nutrients instead of pushing them out.
That, she says, will "begin to starve the global ocean of nutrients."
3. A Lot of Changes Are Happening
The aftermath of Cyclone Idai, one of the deadliest storms in history, in Mozambique, March 2019. Denis Onyodi / IFRC / DRK / Climate Centre / CC BY-NC 2.0
As bad as that sounds…there's a lot more.
One of the most obvious results of ocean warming is higher sea levels. That's caused in part because water expands as it warms.
But there's also the effect on sea ice. The warmer the water gets, the more ice melts — as is happening in Antarctica. Not surprisingly rates of global sea-level rise are accelerating. This means more property damage, storm surges, and waves lapping at the heels of our coastal communities.
Warmer waters also mean more supercharged storms. An increase in heat drives up evaporation and adds extra moisture to the atmosphere, causing heavy rains, more flooding and more extreme weather events.
it can make drier conditions worse, too. When air rises and cools below the dew point, it turns into clouds or precipitation. "But in places like Arizona or Australia, where rain is generally formed when air is pushed upward over mountains, "the warmer atmosphere might not be cold enough to cause rain," explains Russell. "This is how a warmer atmosphere carrying more moisture might actually rain less in some places — contributing to drought and therefore fire."
The recent study in Advances in Atmospheric Sciences identified warming waters as "one of the key reasons why the Earth has experienced increasing catastrophic fires in the Amazon, California, and Australia in 2019 (extending into 2020 for Australia)."
And that's not all.
Warming ocean waters also contribute to the rise of colonies of algae that can produce toxins deadly to wildlife and sometimes people.
These harmful algal blooms pose a problem even way up in the Gulf of Alaska, where the annual algae season has gotten longer, says Rick Thoman, a climate specialist with the Alaska Center for Climate Assessment and Policy at the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
"That's all, of course, due to warmer water," he says.
The biggest change in the region may be along the coast of the Bering Sea, where water temperatures have historically been too cold for the blooms to occur — but that's starting to change.
"Now the water temperatures are getting up to the point where they're warm enough to support these harmful algal blooms," Thoman says. Toxins from the blooms can work their way up the food chain and have even shown up in some marine mammals in the areas. "People are concerned about whether it's safe to eat their staple foods," he says.
4. Marine Heat Waves Are Getting Worse
An aerial view of widespread coral bleaching in the northern Great Barrier Reef, 2016. Terry Hughes / ARC Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies / CC BY-ND 2.0
While temperatures are rising across the world's oceans, some areas are also seeing dangerous short-term spikes known as marine heatwaves.
Scientists anticipate that these heatwaves, which can be fatal to a long list of sea creatures, will continue to get more severe and more frequent as the ocean warms. By the end of the century, conditions in some areas may be akin to a permanent heatwave.
That's likely to be bad news for everything from seaweed to birds to mammals, and it could result in fundamental changes for food webs and the animals and coastal economies that depend on those resources.
"Collectively, and over time, an increase in the exposure of marine ecosystems to extreme temperatures may lead to irreversible loss of species or foundation habitats, such as seagrass, coral reefs and kelp forests," a December 2019 study in Frontiers in Marine Science found.
And these changes likely aren't far off. These marine heatwaves "will emerge as forceful agents of disturbance to marine ecosystems in the near-future," the researchers wrote.
We're already seeing what that would look like.
Marine heatwaves off Australia have spurred oyster die-offs and losses to the abalone fishery, and one event in 2016 caught the world's attention when it caused severe bleaching of the biodiverse Great Barrier Reef, triggering mass coral deaths.
And scientists now believe that "the blob," a mass of warm water that persisted off the Pacific Coast from California to Alaska from 2014 to 2016, led to the starvation of an estimated 1 million common murres (Uria aalge) — a normally resilient seabird. The warm waters likely reduced and changed phytoplankton communities — an essential part of the marine food web. But that's not all. The warm waters increased the metabolism — and the appetite — of big fish like pollock and salmon. That demand spike crashed populations of forage fish that murres usually find plentiful.
Most recently a prolonged marine heatwave off the coast of Alaska led to the closure of region's commercial Pacific cod fishery for 2020 — the first time that's ever happened.
"When you cancel whole fisheries, that really impacts people's lives and livelihoods," says Thoman.
5. What We Don’t Know
Scientists have enough information now to tell us that we need to quickly change course. But there's still a lot to learn about how warming temperatures will affect myriad species in the sea, not to mention weather patterns and coastal economies.
One current line of research is to better understand how ocean warming affects weather.
"We know that a warmer ocean means more water evaporates into the atmosphere," says Abraham. "Consequently, it makes the weather more severe because humidity drives storms. We would like to quantify this. So how much worse is weather now and how bad will it be?"
Some of that information will come from existing systems.
"We live in a time of great change, and the ocean is telling us these stories mostly through our incredible Argo floats," says Russell. This global network of nearly 3,900 floating sensors can measure temperature, salinity and pressure at varying depths across the world's oceans.
But in the Southern Ocean, Russell works with an even more advanced group of biogeochemical sensors. They measure nitrates, which can tell researchers about the building blocks of nutrients for the food web. They also measure oxygen, "how the ocean is breathing," she says, and pH, which helps tell the carbon content of the water.
Russell says she'd like to see this technology put to use in more waters around the world.
"We're trying to get a global biogeochemical Argo array, but so far haven't gotten funding for it," she says. "I'm desperate to see the rest of the ocean because it's all connected and it's mixing quickly."
The Arctic, she says, is one place where this technology would play a particularly valuable role.
"It's so shallow in many places, and under ice for so much of the year, that we haven't really been able to get a big float array up there," she says. "But the Arctic is critical to our national interest and it's relatively unstudied. Can you imagine that, in this day and age?"
There's plenty to keep researchers busy, but the rest of us also need to act quickly to reduce greenhouse gas emissions because, the researchers of the Advances in Atmospheric Sciences study concluded, the oceans are so vast that they'll require years to dissipate all of this excess heat and register the changes we're starting to make today. Cutting emissions, they wrote, is the only way to reduce "the risks to humans and other life on Earth."
Reposted with permission from The Revelator.
- Ocean Cleanup Team Unveils Solar Powered 'Interceptor' to Collect ... ›
- Ocean Cleaning Device Succeeds in Removing Plastic for the First ... ›
- Dungeness Crabs' Shells Are Dissolving From the Severity of Pacific ... ›
- Irish Teenager Wins Google Science Award for Removing ... ›
- Oceans Likely to Heat up at Seven Times Their Current Rate, New Study Finds - EcoWatch ›
- Celebrate World Oceans Day From Home With the UN This Monday - EcoWatch ›
- Ocean Warming Is Causing Deep-Sea Creatures to Migrate Toward Poles ›
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Zahida Sherman
Cooking has always intimidated me. As a child, I would anxiously peer into the kitchen as my mother prepared Christmas dinner for our family.
Falling in Love With Food All Over Again<p>Slowly, through my most intimate relationships with friends and partners, I began to see the beauty — and rewards — of cooking.</p><p>I got tired of giving in to defeat and always bringing chips or paper products to social gatherings. I started asking my mom to send me her Christmas and Thanksgiving recipes. I even volunteered to host Thanksgiving dinner at my place.</p><p>Each time I heard my loved ones sing the praises of the foods I prepared for them, I felt a tinge more confident that I could carry out our traditions my way.</p><p>In reaching out to other relatives for their favorite recipes, I learned that they had a little help of their own. They didn't rely solely on their ancestral cooking instincts. They turned to Black chefs for guidance.</p><p>These 7 cookbooks by Black chefs have inspired my family and fed us in nutrients, joy, and spiritual sustenance. They're also helping me overcome my personal fears of cooking.</p>
Get CookingWhether you're in recovery from cooking fears like me, or are just looking to expand your culinary confidence with dishes honoring Black heritage, these Black chefs are here to support you on your journey.Turn on some music, give yourself permission to make mistakes, and throw down for yourself or your loved ones. Glorious flavors await you.
- 18 Cookbooks for Building a Diverse and Just Food System ... ›
- 19 Individuals and Groups Building Stronger Black Communities ... ›
- 8 Cookbooks We're Reading This Fall - EcoWatch ›
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) has expanded its list of potentially toxic hand sanitizers to avoid because they could be contaminated with methanol.
- Here's How to Clean Your Groceries During the COVID-19 Outbreak ... ›
- Why Hand-Washing Really Is as Important as Doctors Say - EcoWatch ›
- If You're Worried About the New Coronavirus, Here's How to Protect ... ›
- Vodka Won't Protect You From Coronavirus, and 4 Other Things to ... ›
By Tara Lohan
The conclusion to decades of work to remove a dam on the Middle Fork Nooksack River east of Bellingham, Washington began with a bang yesterday as crews breached the dam with a carefully planned detonation. This explosive denouement is also a beginning.
The History<p>The Middle Fork Nooksack drains glacier-fed headwater streams that run off the icy summit of 10,778-foot Mt. Baker. The Middle Fork joins the North Fork and then the mainstem of the Nooksack River, which travels to Bellingham Bay and Puget Sound. The entire Nooksack watershed stretches 830 square miles across Washington and into British Columbia.</p>
A Plan Comes Together<p>The Middle Fork dam is not a pool dam built for water storage. Much of the time, water flows over the top until dam operators drop a floodgate to divert water to new locations. That water travels about 14 miles through tunnel and pipeline to Mirror Lake, then Anderson Creek, and to Lake Whatcom before finally being delivered to residents' taps.</p><p>Before removing the dam, engineers had to move the water intake 700 feet upstream and situate it at an elevation that still enabled city water withdrawals throughout the year, regardless of flow conditions.</p><p>They also needed to make sure that the rushing water didn't sweep up fish and accidentally send them through the water-supply system.</p><p>"The solution required a fairly complex design in the intake structure, including a fish exit pipe out of that structure to put fish back into the river in a way that meets current environmental permit standards," explains LaCroix.</p>
Project layout for the removal of the Middle Fork Nooksack diversion dam and rebuilding of water intake. City of Bellingham<p>Despite the cost and the work, she says, being able to continue to meet their municipal water obligations while opening up habitat for threatened species has been a win-win.</p><p>"I think there's a lot of benefits to having a dam removal versus fish passage — the main one being that you get a free-flowing river that can be a dynamic ecosystem and change over time," she says. "A static fish ladder just can't provide that same level of ecosystem benefit."</p>
Restoration Success<p>Despite local authorities' championing dam removal on the Middle Fork, the project has largely flown under the radar, overshadowed in the Pacific Northwest by heated discussions about a much larger potential project — removing <a href="https://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/feds-reject-removal-of-4-snake-river-dams-in-key-report/" target="_blank">four federal hydroelectric dams on the lower Snake River</a>, a major tributary of the Columbia River.</p><p>Proponents of dam removal there see it as the best chance for recovering threatened salmon populations, including Chinook, which could help starving Southern Resident killer whales. Those dams also provide irrigation water, barge navigation and hydropower, so there's been more pushback against removal efforts.</p><p>Previous dam removals around the country, however, have proved successful at aiding fish recovery and river restoration.</p><p>Most notably the 1999 demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/edwards-dam-removal/" target="_blank">Edwards Dam on Maine's Kennebec River</a> restored the annual run of alewives, a type of herring essential to the food web. The fish run has gone from zero to 5 million in the two decades since dam removal. Blueback herring, striped bass, sturgeon and shad have also extended their reach. And the resurgence has brought back osprey, bald eagles and other wildlife, too.</p><p>The overwhelming success of river restoration on the Kennebec helped to spur a nationwide dam removal movement that's now seen 1,200 dams come down since 1999. Last year a record <a href="https://www.americanrivers.org/conservation-resource/a-record-26-states-removed-dams-in-2019/" target="_blank">90 dams</a> were removed in 26 states, including <a href="https://therevelator.org/cleveland-forest-dam-removal/" target="_blank">20 dams in California's Cleveland National Forest</a>.</p>
Spider excavators remove on dam on San Juan Creek in California's Cleveland National Forest. Julie Donnell, USFS<p>The results have been seen in the Pacific Northwest, as well, which boasts the largest dam removal thus far in the country. In 2011 and 2014, the demolition of <a href="https://therevelator.org/elwha-dam-removal/" target="_blank">two dams</a> on Elwha River, which runs through Washington's Olympic National Park, opened up 70 miles of habitat that had been blocked for a century. Scientists have started seeing all five species of salmon native to the river coming back, particularly Chinook and coho. Bull trout, they've observed, have increased in size since the dams were removal.</p>
Benefits on the Middle Fork Nooksack<p>McEwan hopes to see a similar outcome on the Middle Fork.</p><p>Like the Elwha the Middle Fork Nooksack is a relatively pristine river with little development, and dam removal is expected to provide a big boost to fish. The additional miles of spawning habitat are important, but so is the temperature of that water.</p><p>The dam removal will open access to cold upstream waters, which are ideal for salmon and getting harder to come by as climate change warms waters and reduces mountain runoff.</p><p>"This is really great for the climate change resiliency for these species," says McEwan.</p><p>Steelhead will get back 45% of their historic habitat in the river, and scientists expect Chinook populations to increase in abundance by 31%.</p><p>That <em>could</em> help Southern Resident killer whales.</p><p>"When you get to the ocean, it's a little bit of a black box in terms of what you can model and say definitively is going to help, but more fish is better for orcas," McEwan says.</p><p>Upstream habitat will see benefits, too.</p><p>Oceangoing fish like salmon enrich their bodies with carbon and nitrogen while at sea. When they return to their natal rivers to spawn and die, the marine-derived nutrients they carry back upriver become important food and fertilizer for both riverine and terrestrial ecosystems — aiding everything from trees to birds to bears.</p><p>"Once the fish start making their way back, it will start changing the whole ecological system," says Delgado.</p><p><span></span>But any ecological benefit from salmon restoration, either in the ocean or the upper watershed, won't be immediate.<br></p><p>"The population of salmon on the Middle Fork is so low that we expect it's going to take quite a while to rebound," she says. "But the big picture is that what's good for salmon is good for the region — our history and our destiny are intricately intertwined."</p><p>After decades of work, that process of restoration has finally begun.</p>
- 4 Exciting Dam-Removal Projects to Watch - EcoWatch ›
- Jump-Starting the Dam Removal Movement in the U.S. - EcoWatch ›
- Boom: Removing 81 Dams Is Transforming This California Watershed ›
- Sea Level Rise Is Speeding up Along Most of the U.S. Coast ... ›
- Protecting Mangroves Can Prevent Billions of Dollars in Global ... ›
- Flooding Risk for U.S. Homes: Millions More Are Vulnerable Than ... ›
- 300 Million People Worldwide Could Suffer Yearly Flooding by 2050 ... ›
- Sea Level Rise Could Put 2.4 Million U.S. Coastal Homes at Risk ... ›
By Katie Howell
A new tool called The Food Systems Dashboard aims to save decision makers time and energy by painting a complete picture of a country's food system. Created by the Johns Hopkins' Alliance for a Healthier World, the Global Alliance for Improved Nutrition (GAIN), and the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), the Dashboard compiles food systems data from over 35 sources and offers it as a public good.
By Manuela Callari
It can grow to a maximum of six inches (16 centimeters), change color depending on mood and habitat, and, like all seahorses, the White's seahorse male gestates its young. But this tiny snouted fish is under threat.
Building an Ocean Seahorse Destination<p>Seahorses are found in tropical and temperate coastal water worldwide, but are most abundant around Australia, China and the Philippines. </p><p>Trade in the tiny creatures is strictly regulated because of their use in traditional medicine, aquariums and their sale as dried curios. But because they are poor swimmers and cannot easily move elsewhere, habitat loss is a particular threat for these curious animals. </p><p>Seahorses wrap their tails around seagrass and corals to avoid being carried away on currents. They use the habitat to spawn and hide from predators such as crabs, while also feeding on riches of plankton and small crustaceans living in the reef.</p><p><span></span>Where corals aren't available, <a href="https://onlinelibrary.wiley.com/doi/abs/10.1002/aqc.1217" target="_blank">scientists</a> found seahorses taking up residence in fishing nets and old crab traps abandoned at the bottom of the ocean. </p>
Mixing With the Locals<p>Baby seahorse mortality is high in the wild because they are easily caught, so those bred in the protected environment of the aquarium weren't ready to be released into the wild until early May.</p><p>The team released 90 new arrivals into Sydney Harbor, placing some directly into the purpose-built hotels, and others onto a net that wild seahorses had already settled on.</p><p>Before setting them free, the researchers marked each young seahorse with a fluorescent tag with unique IDs inserted just beneath the skin to track how they get on in the different environments. </p><p>"The most exciting part was being able to put these animals into the wild and then go back a month later and still see them surviving and growing," said McCracken. </p><p>The seahorses will be old enough to mate and reproduce around October or November 2020. And researchers hope that by then, they will be able to breed with the wild population. </p>
Building a Global Seahorse Hotel Chain<p>With seahorses everywhere facing the loss of their coral reef homes, similar projects have sprung up in places like Greece and South Africa, home to the world's most endangered seahorse, the Knysna seahorse. </p><p>"The endangered South African seahorse is benefiting from something quite similar, even though it wasn't intentional," said Peter Teske, professor at the Department of Zoology, University of Johannesburg.</p><p>In the South African <a href="https://www.researchgate.net/publication/322649251_An_endangered_seahorse_selectively_chooses_an_artificial_structure" target="_blank">case</a>, seahorses have bedded down in "Reno mattresses" — wire cages filled with rocks — that were used to build a new marina. Researchers from NGO Knysna Basin Project found the structures acted as a refuge for the animals.<span></span></p><p><span></span>While Teske describes the seahorse hotels as "a positive news story" and a great way to create public awareness of conservation, he added that establishing artificial habitats in some areas will only prevent the extinction of local populations.</p><p>"For a complete recovery, it is necessary to give the natural habitat a chance to regenerate," said the seahorse expert. </p>
Underwater Mascot<p>In Australia, the researchers hope the project could provide an opportunity to raise awareness not only of the plight of the Sydney seahorses but the other animals with which it shares its ocean habitat.</p><p>The waters around Sydney and the east coast are rich in biodiversity and include several threatened species like the weedy seadragon — a relative of the seahorse — and the grey nurse shark. Like the seahorse, they're also under pressure from pollution, ocean traffic and habitat loss through storms and coastal construction. </p><p>"It's a good thing to get people's support and interest. The seahorses are a useful vehicle to get people concerned if the harbor is in trouble," said David Booth, professor of marine ecology at the University of Technology Sydney who is also working on the project. </p><p>The hotels have become an attraction for divers hoping to catch a glimpse of these small but near mythical creatures. </p><p>"Everyone loves seahorses," added Booth, "they are so popular." </p>
- 7 Amazing New Fish Species Discovered in 2017 - EcoWatch ›
- Millions of Seahorses Wind Up Dead on the Black Market for This ... ›
Presidential hopeful Joe Biden announced a $2 trillion plan Tuesday to boost American investment in clean energy and infrastructure.
- Green New Deal Champion AOC Will Serve on Biden Climate Panel ... ›
- Biden-Sanders Unity Task Forces Unveil Improved Climate Policy ... ›