There are two types of surprises: good and bad. Win the lottery? Well. Extreme heat waves that cook the oceans more regularly and ruin the fisheries that millions of people rely on? Extremely bad.
However, this is our current situation, which is likely to worsen as the oceans continue to warm. A new study, published Monday in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, shows that climate change is already pushing large parts of the oceans out of their normal limits of livelihoods associated with them. Climate change could push ecosystems to their limits, forcing the people who depend on them to adapt or suffer the consequences.
To conduct their study, researchers have studied annual temperature data for 65 large marine ecosystems collected since 1900 a given year up to the 30 years prior, basically forming a running average of "normal" conditions. Years in which the temperature was warmer (or colder) by two standard deviations than in the previous 30 years were called "surprise". The marker for two standard deviations is also referred to as the "significant" threshold in science. Think about it.
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"I was wondering what would happen if you allowed the datum points to shift as new information comes in," said Andrew Pershing, chief Science Officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute, which led the study, said Earther. "This led us to think about how ecosystems and humans will adapt to the warmer conditions and what rate of change will be really exhausting."
The results show a dramatic upswing in surprising years since the 1980s, especially in the 1980s Arctic and Atlantic. These surprises are for the most part hotter than normal. Only four cold surprises have occurred since 2000. The pace of hot surprises seems to have accelerated since 2010 in the Pacific and Indian Ocean. There are certain natural climatic changes that have driven the heat, especially the Super El Niños, which occurred in 1997 and 2015/16. But climate change has led to heat build-up in the oceans, increasing the likelihood of ocean heatwaves (a similar trend was observed ashore).
"I was um, surprised that changing the definition of an extreme event in warm conditions did not reduce the number of extreme events as much as I expected," Pershing said. "I was also surprised how widespread these surprising temperatures are."
The surprising conditions at sea can ruin the livelihoods of land (not to mention the ecosystems they encounter). The Pacific crab fishery has been shaken by a lingering barrage of unusually hot water in recent years, while the Gulf of Maine – a place among the fastest-warming regions on earth – has hit its lobster industry hard by extreme heat events.
The new findings show that freakish hot ocean waters will only become more common in the coming decades. Rising heat could almost make these surprising conditions the norm. The study found that in many of the 65 areas studied, chances could approach a "theoretical maximum" of surprising ocean heatwaves if the world continues to emit carbon dioxide, as if there is no tomorrow. We probably should not do that.
Even if carbon pollution is reduced, it is clear that the fishery operates in a different environment than the one to which it has grown. The study recommends that policymakers use these and other findings in extreme conditions to better support fisheries and the people who work in them. This could mean improving seasonal forecasts, tightening fishing quotas, improving insurance options to protect against losses, and improving conservation practices to ensure that marine species living in hot water do not go down too.