Ocean heat record smashed as scientists warn of risk to millions

The oceans have reached their hottest ever recorded temperature, a sign of the accelerating effects of climate change.

According to the EU’s climate change service Copernicus, the average daily global sea surface temperature reached 20.96 degrees Celsius this week, beating a previous record set in 2016.

This is far above the average for this time of year, which is around 16 degrees Celsius.

The warming of the oceans is a major concern because it has a number of negative impacts on our planet’s health. For example, warmer oceans can lead to more extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and cyclones.

The Earth’s oceans absorb a significant amount of the heat trapped in the atmosphere by greenhouse gases, helping to regulate the climate and prevent it from getting too hot. But warmer waters can end up releasing more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere.

Warmer oceans also cause coral bleaching which has a devastating impact on marine ecosystems.

‘The water feels like a bath when you jump in,’ Dr Kathryn Lesneski told the BBC.

‘Right now there is widespread coral bleaching at shallow reefs in Florida and many corals have already died.’

‘The extreme weather which has affected many millions of people in July is unfortunately the harsh reality of climate change and a foretaste of the future,’ said World Meteorological Organization’s Secretary-General Prof. Petteri Taalas.

‘The need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions is more urgent than ever before. Climate action is not a luxury but a must.’

As the oceans warm, predatory animals like sharks can become more aggressive as warmer temperatures can confuse their senses.

Dr Samantha Burgess, from the Copernicus Climate Change Service told the BBC that March should be when the oceans globally are warmest, not August.

‘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,’ she said.

Since April, the global average daily sea surface temperature has remained at record values for this time of year. 

What do warmer oceans mean for the planet?

  • More extreme weather events: Warmer oceans can lead to more hurricanes and cyclones that cause widespread damage and loss of life.
  • Bleaching and death of coral reefs: Coral reefs are important ecosystems that support various marine life. However, they are sensitive to changes in temperature and can bleach and die when the water gets too warm.
  • Release of carbon dioxide: Warmer oceans can release more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This gas is a significant contributor to climate change.
  • Changes in marine life: The warming of the oceans also causes some species to move to cooler waters, while others are dying off. This can have a cascading effect on entire ecosystems.
  • Threat to glaciers: As the ocean gets warmer, the loss of glaciers increases causing flooding, changes in river flows, and loss of habitat for wildlife.

This year has seen several marine heatwaves in the UK, the North Atlantic, the Mediterranean and the Gulf of Mexico.

The Met Office and the European Space Agency (ESA) have both reported that temperatures in UK waters were 3C to 5C higher than average in June 2023.

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