Heat Waves As Deadly As Forest Fires Sweep Through World’s Oceans


March 5th, 2019 by Steve Hanley 

It is well known that the oceans are warming, but a new study published in the journal Nature Climate Change on March 4 is the first to examine heat waves that last 5 days or more in the world’s ocean. The scientist involved compare those heat waves to “wildfires that take out huge areas of forest.”

Ocean heat waves are happening more frequently. In the past 30 years, the number of heat wave days have increased by more than 50% compared to the period 1935 to 1954 and the incidence of heat wave days has tripled in the past several years. Not only are ocean heat waves more frequent, they also tend to be more severe and last longer.

ocean heat wave graph

Source: Nature Climate Change via The Guardian

Like Wild Fires In The Ocean

“You have heatwave induced wildfires that take out huge areas of forest, but this is happening underwater as well,” says Dan Smale of the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, UK, who led the research. “You see the kelp and sea grasses dying in front of you. Within weeks or months they are just gone along hundreds of kilometers of coastline.”

In addition to quantifying the increase in ocean heat waves, the scientists analyzed 116 research papers on eight well known marine heat waves. “They have adverse impacts on a wide range of organisms, from plankton to invertebrates, to fish, mammals and seabirds,” Smale says. As heatwaves have increased, kelp forests, sea grass meadows and coral reefs have been lost. These foundation species are critical to life in the ocean, says The Guardian, as they provide shelter and food to many other species.

“A lot of ocean systems are being battered by multiple stresses. The starting temperature is much higher, so the absolute temperatures are that much higher and more stressful,” Smale says, then adds that while some marine wildlife is mobile and could in theory swim to cooler waters, ocean heatwaves often strike large areas more rapidly than fish can move.

“This [research] makes clear that heatwaves are hitting the ocean all over the world … The ocean, in effect, is spiking a fever,” Professor Malin Pinsky, of Rutgers tells The Guardian. “These events are likely to become more extreme and more common in the future unless we can reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” Pinsky was not part of the research team.

Fishing Is Suffering Dramatic Declines

Dr Éva Plagányi at the Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation in Australia also likened ocean heat waves to wildfires. “Frequent big hits can have long-lasting effects,” she says. “This study shows that record breaking events are becoming the new normal. In the space of one week, scientific publications have underscored that unless we take evasive action, our future oceans will have fewer fish, fewer whales, and frequent dramatic shifts in ecological structure will occur, with concerning implications for humans who depend on the ocean,” she says.

Malin Pinsky is one of the authors of a new study published in Science last week which found fish catches have been reduced 15% to 35% in five ocean regions including the North Sea and the East China Sea because of warmer ocean temperatures. Those findings could be a nutritional disaster for hundreds of millions of people. “We were stunned to find that fisheries around the world have already responded to ocean warming,” he says.

The Green New Deal

Warming oceans require drastic action to avoid the Earth becoming an overheated cinder. The Green New Deal outlines a series of actions that can be taken to help keep the planet from overheating. Since it was announced last month, lots of people, including some of my colleagues, have lambasted the plan and its authors. It’s too vague. It’s too difficult. It’s too expensive. It doesn’t align with conservative free market principles. The list of objections is long and getting longer.

Addressing any challenge requires a plan; we can’t just wing it and hope. Then we need to work the plan and notice if it is effective. Then we adjust the plan to address the lessons learned so far. Then we work the new plan, adjust it as necessary, and so forth. Lather, rinse, repeat. This is how, in the real world, many problems get solved.

Any fool can criticize a plan created by someone else and every fool does. Here’s a specific question to those of you who sneer at the Green New Deal — what is your plan? In specific detail, what do you suggest we do to protect our planet from overheating? If all you have is criticism and no substantive plan of your own, you are just deadwood on the bowling alley of life. So let’s hear it. It’s long past time. Put up or shut up. 


Tags: Climate change, Global Weirding, green new deal, ocean heat wave

About the Author

Steve Hanley Steve writes about the interface between technology and sustainability from his home in Rhode Island and anywhere else the Singularity may lead him. His motto is, “Life is not measured by how many breaths we take but by the number of moments that take our breath away!” You can follow him on Google + and on Twitter.

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