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Marine Heatwaves Sound More Climate Alarms

April 12, 2023
CLARK'S REMARKS: Beach season is nearing for our friends on the coasts, but increasingly severe hurricane seasons remind us that real climate action is long past due.

For those of us fortunate enough to live near the beach, checking the weather forecast is a daily ritual. (During hurricane season, most of us check it even more).

In Pompano Beach FL, our Ocean Rescue Division (part of Fire Rescue) provides a surf/beach condition recorded report every morning at 9 a.m. That report provides information about what color flags are flying, the times of high and low tides, the air and water surface temperatures, and the chance of precipitation.

Unfortunately, the warmer water temperatures that make for comfortable swimming and water sports, and are good for tourism, are also good for extreme weather such as hurricanes. According to recent data from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), ocean temperatures now are at an all-time high.

Since early April, the average ocean surface temperature this spring has been 21.1 deg. C (70 deg. F.) and appears to be trending higher. The previous record, set in 2016, was 21.0 deg. C. (69.8 deg. F.). Although three years of La Niña – a condition in which stronger trade winds push warm water off the west coast of the Americas – kept those temperatures in the Pacific Ocean down, they nevertheless were still higher than expected. And now, with some forecasters predicting an El Niño period (which has the opposite effect of La Niña, pushing warm water back to the west coast), there will be higher temperatures in the ocean and on land.

Marine heatwaves are areas of the ocean where temperatures remain in the top 10% of the highest recorded for that time of year for five or more consecutive days. A recent study indicates that there are moderate-to-strong marine heatwaves in the southern Indian Ocean, the south Atlantic, all the way to the northern coast of Africa, and the south Pacific (off the coasts of New Zealand, Australia, and the west of Central America).

Although these marine heatwaves can be affected by local weather conditions, they have also been shown to have increased in both frequency and intensity as ocean temperatures have increased. In addition to providing fuel for hurricanes, higher ocean temps can also melt ice sheets and cause sea level rise. Marine heatwaves also cause coral bleaching and sicken and kill certain specifies of marine wildlife.

A new report from Moody’s Analytics confirms the vulnerability to climate change, with its higher risk of severe weather, of large coastal states (including Florida). If you want to see it firsthand, take a drive to Cape Coral on Florida’s west coast. Residents are still repairing and rebuilding from the devastating effects of Hurricane Ian and they just ended the curbside collection of storm debris, after hauling away nearly two million cubic yards.

Of course, that's not all. Other reports indicate that sea level rise in the Gulf of Mexico and the southeastern U.S. coastlines is actually accelerating, suggesting that cities like Miami, New Orleans, and Houston are now at even greater risk than previously predicted.

So, now, as the scientific evidence supporting climate change continues to mount, finally convincing even some of the most skeptical deniers, the time to act also is quickly running out. This is not a drill!

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A regular contributor to HPAC Engineering and a member of its editorial advisory board, the author is a principal at Sustainable Performance Solutions LLC, a south Florida-based engineering firm focusing on energy and sustainability. He can be reached at [email protected].