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Byron Shire
March 27, 2023

Extreme heat is the ‘new normal’ in the ocean

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150 years of data reveal that the majority of the ocean’s surface has experienced extreme heat since 2014.

The old story goes that if you pop a frog in a pot of boiling water, it will quite rightly leap straight back out again. But if you start with a pot of cold water and raise the temperature in barely noticeable increments, the frog will fail to register the creeping disaster and will sedately submit to being boiled alive.

While science has debunked the literal interpretation of this tale, the story holds within it a familiarity around humanity’s perception of climate change. A new study published in PLOS Climate outlines how marine temperatures that once would have been perceived as extreme have been adopted into the new normal, with increasingly frequent marine heatwaves failing to garner the widespread concern needed to address the threat that they pose to marine life and ecosystem services.

Researchers from the Monterey Bay Aquarium in California mapped 150 years of sea surface temperature data to establish a historical benchmark for marine heat extremes. They identified the most dramatic ocean warming that occurred over the period spanning 1870 to 1919, defining the top two percent of increases as extreme heat.  They then looked at how often the world’s oceans surpassed this point.

The picture that emerged from their analysis was worrying, with heat trends worsening through time.

The first year on record in which more than half of the ocean experienced heat extremes was 2014. By 2019, this had increased to 57 per cent of the ocean. In comparison, just two per cent of the ocean was experiencing extremely warm temperatures at the end of the 19th century.

The researchers believe this is a clear indicator of the real and immediate threat posed by global warming.

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Climate change is not a future event, says Dr Kyle Van Houtan, who headed the research team during his tenure as chief scientist for the aquarium. The reality is that it’s been affecting us for a while. Our research shows that for the last seven years more than half of the ocean has experienced extreme heat.

These dramatic changes we’ve recorded in the ocean are yet another piece of evidence that should be a wake-up call to act on climate change, he adds. We are experiencing it now, and it is speeding up.

Van Houtan believes that, much like the fabled frog in the slowly boiling pot, we are collectively failing to register the peril of this warming trend, which can only be curbed by a drastic reduction of emissions from the burning of fossil fuels.

Today, the majority of the ocean’s surface has warmed to temperatures that only a century ago occurred as rare, once-in-50-year extreme warming events, he says.

The implications of this warming are likely to be far-reaching.

When marine ecosystems near the tropics experience intolerably high temperatures, key organisms such as corals, seagrass meadows, or kelp forests can collapse, Van Houtan explains.

Altering ecosystem structure and function threatens their capacity to provide life-sustaining services to human communities like supporting healthy and sustainable fisheries, buffering low-lying coastal regions from extreme weather events, and serving as a carbon sink to store the excess carbon put in the atmosphere from human-generated greenhouse emissions.

The question remains, how hot will the water have to get for us to fear the change?


This article was originally published on Cosmos Magazine and was written by Jamie Priest. Jamie Priest is a science journalist at Cosmos. She has a Bachelor of Science in Marine Biology from the University of Adelaide.

Published by The Echo in conjunction with Cosmos Magazine.

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    • You right Burrow, no need to be concerned, it not real, yeah. We only talking about the only planet we got that is habitable. How are your kids and grandkids ‘enjoying’ the trajectory of affairs playing out on their only ‘home’.

  1. It’s okay, climate change is a hoax, conspiracy etc. The Deniers have got our backs, afterall CO2 is just plant food and Mother Earth is in rare good health.

  2. You’ve got the description wrong, Joachim. We ceased to be deniers five years ago. Now we’re denialists. To start with we were sceptics but that was problematic because scepticism is at the heart of science. It’s a matter of time before the word becomes ‘heritic’. And any way how does the upper atmosphere affect the temperature of the oceans, apart from at the surface? What about the bottom of the ocean? But that would be sensible science.

    • Robot, feel free to deep dive the ocean to escape the climate carnage above. You going to build a modern day Atlantis ? Hey, now that just might be the solution to a dead planet surface, we living deep underwater.

  3. I’d hazard the guess that most people are like the proverbial frog. Unless we have governments (around the world) that just impose those rules that can curb climate change by force, we’ll all go down with the planet. I’m afraid our bigger brain won’t stop us from overcoming our primordial no-rational behaviours.
    I wish someone would prove me wrong – my hopes are very limited.

  4. Almost every product we consume, directly or indirectly, is a cause of environmental damage and pollution whether in the original sourcing, or the transport, manufacture or end of life disposal. Bottom line is we need to drastically reduce the worlds human population, consume a fraction of what we do in industrialised countries, recycle effectively and eliminate green house gas emissions otherwise it is a one way journey to environmental catastrophe and mass extinctions. Some non reversible tipping points have already been crossed with things like the worldwide melting of glaciers and we continue much as before and seemingly unable or unwilling to change our lifestyles and wants.

  5. The writer of this article has a Bachelor in marine biology, and it seems the article was added to by the Echo. I can’t understand how the planet has suddenly a billion climate scientists, all with a honorary bachelor of science. BS that is. Even when theories are proven they remain to be theories because that’s how actual science works, any theory can be improved upon, regardless of what PR experts have to say, and that’s what the world has had now for 50 years, public relations environmentalism. Nothing to do with trees or coral at all, just the press coverage.

  6. Yeah… you’re a ‘mister cool guy’ Barrow. Look at what you ‘done all
    by yourself.’ Your Marine Biology understanding is simply out of this
    world. Add on – Hi Robot! Who’s at least ‘looking at’ sensible science.
    My guess is – & had better be – “One near-dead planet Coming up.”

  7. Get a grip Stefanie.. it matters little about your opinions or mine on GW .. Computer modeling fairytale stuff it is not 100%
    Stefanie how can you just load info
    Into a computer and Bingo .. its absolutely
    Hypothetical.. even one of the most well known professor/ scientist respected the world over by all scientists.. was shutdown
    By Google why ? Because he had the audacity to call out his findings that the
    World is not warming as has been suggested… add on – greta the indoctrinated
    Who has unfortunately brainwashed the youth of today with misinformation and when called out on it ? Well so what if she is wrong its all for the Planet right ? Like when
    She looked straight into the Camera and stated that climate change/ global warming
    Has killed millions.. incorrect young lady
    Infact the cold has killed more people
    Worldwide every year .. facts don’t matter
    When Climate change is debated, or when its not ..because you are promptly shutdown
    By the Left .. !!

  8. Barrow, you are The Master, The Master of Denial. “World is not warming as has been suggested”. Barrow old son , the Science is, IN! The UN/IPCC has for some 30 years written on Global Warming and they haven’t been wrong, you should try a bit of reading to inform yourself about the Science. And Barrow my man, there is our very own Bureau of Meteorology, I’ll quote it again for you Barrow ( copy and save it so you got handy for your next contemplating denial scribble ) – “Australia’s climate has warmed on average by 1.44 ± 0.24 °C since national records began in 1910, leading to an increase in the frequency of extreme heat events”. You can opinionate as much as you like but the Science is, IN!

    • Joachim my lady !! The BOM has just resently just been caught out fudging
      Figures released the past 2 years ..
      It has COOLED .. you can believe
      What you like about the BOM !!
      Or the UN who are nothing but a traveling cocktail party.. the IPCC are infact of the same opinions its not warming as has been suggested.. stop listening to alarmist cults .
      Also if this is a emergency this Climate change in Australia then why are the Greens not voted in by the Australian voters ?

      • More flibberty gibberty with nothing zero backup presented.
        Barrow my man, please do tell us about this BoM fudging and The IPCC, “its not warming”, you have discovered……………….we waiting.

  9. I don’t do computer modeling & Google deserves to be shut down. Most of us
    were born with brains that work most of the time. Rave on if you choose. I do
    not choose to listen. Why? It all began years ago. The Wilderness Society
    alerted me to the foolishness that exists in humankind. Have a good day.
    There’s a choice we all have. . . use it wisely.

  10. Well Stefanie if you don’t do computer modeling then why are you so alarmed by
    GW ? Computer modeling is behind the science used for Future cooling or warming .
    As Joachim would say the science is settled .
    All with Computer modeling..

  11. Barrow we are alarmed because Australia has since 1910 already warmed by 1.44 +/- 0.24 degrees and the world has warmed by 1.1 degrees since Industrialization ( 1850).
    This is The Science . The Science IS settled, but you already know this.


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