Published August 21, 2009
Hot water: ocean temps set recordsSETH BORENSTEIN; The Associated Press
WASHINGTON – Steve Kramer spent an hour and a half swimming in the ocean Sunday – in Maine. The water temperature was 72 degrees – more like Ocean City, Md., this time of year. And Ocean City’s water temp hit 88 degrees this week, toasty even by Miami Beach standards. Kramer, 26, who lives in the seaside town of Scarborough, said it was the first time he’s ever swam so long in Maine’s coastal waters. “Usually, you’re in five minutes and you’re out,” he said. It’s not just the ocean off the Northeast coast that is super-warm this summer. July was the hottest the world’s oceans have been in almost 130 years of record-keeping. The average water temperature worldwide was 62.6 degrees, according to the National Climatic Data Center, the branch of the U.S. government that keeps world weather records. June was only slightly cooler, while August could set another record, scientists say. The previous record was set in July 1998 during a powerful El Niño weather pattern. Meteorologists said there’s a combination of forces at work: a natural El Niño system just getting started on top of worsening man-made global warming, and a dash of random weather variations. The resulting ocean heat is already harming threatened coral reefs. It could also hasten the melting of Arctic sea ice and help hurricanes strengthen. The Gulf of Mexico, where warm water fuels hurricanes, has temperatures dancing around 90. Most of the water in the Northern Hemisphere has been considerably warmer than normal. The Mediterranean is about three degrees warmer than normal. Higher temperatures rule in the Pacific and Indian Oceans. The heat is most noticeable near the Arctic, where water temperatures are as much as 10 degrees above average. The tongues of warm water could help melt sea ice from below and even cause thawing of ice sheets on Greenland, said Waleed Abdalati, director of the Earth Science and Observation Center at the University of Colorado. Breaking heat records in water is more ominous as a sign of global warming than breaking temperature marks on land, because water takes longer to heat up and does not cool off as easily as land. Georgia Institute of Technology atmospheric science professor Judith Curry said water is warming in more places than usual, something that has not been seen in more than 50 years. Add to that an unusual weather pattern this summer where the warmest temperatures seem to be just over oceans, while slightly cooler air is concentrated over land, said Deke Arndt, head of climate monitoring at the climate data center. The pattern is so unusual that he suggested meteorologists may want to study that pattern to see what’s behind it.