Scientists detect mysterious warming in US coastal waters

Unprecedented ocean temperature rises off the Atlantic and Pacific coasts of the US may be linked to sea level rise or the recent pattern of “weird” weather.

Oceanographers are puzzled by an accelerated burst of warming sea that threatens the fisheries of the American Atlantic coast.

Meanwhile, off the US West coast, scientists report that they have been baffled by a mysterious“blob” of water up to 4°C warmer than the surrounding Pacific, linked to weird weather across the entire country.

Jacob Forsyth and research colleagues from the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution(WHOI) in Massachusetts report in the Journal of Geophysical Research: Oceans that the ocean off the US north-east continental shelf has been warming at unprecedented levels for 13 years.

Their findings came after analysis of data from sensors − called bathythermographs − dropped 14 times a year from the container ship Oleander, which for 37 years has travelled between New Jersey and Bermuda. Each detector takes the temperature of the water column as it sinks up to 700 metres.

Startling discovery

What they were startled to discover was an unexplained, and unprecedented, rise in the water temperatures that may be linked with an equally mysterious sea level anomaly: sea levels are going up, but they are going up faster off the north-east coast of the US than almost anywhere else.

This is a taste of what the ocean will be like in future decades…It wasn’t caused by global warming, but it’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming.

Nicholas Bond,  a research meteorologist at the University of Washington in Seattle

“The warming rate since 2002 is 15 times faster than from the previous 100 years,” says Glen Gawarkiewicz, a WHOI senior scientist and one of the authors of the report.

“There’s just been this incredible acceleration to the warming, and we don’t know if it’s decadal variability or if this trend will continue.”

To make sure of their perspective, the authors compared their analysis with surface data from the Nantucket lightship and other such installations along the coast, from 1880 to 2004. The new study shows that the warming is not just confined to surface waters.

Although there must be some link with the steady rise in atmospheric temperatures because of global warming as a result of human-made carbon dioxide emissions, the oceanographers suspect there may also be another explanation, so far undiscovered.

Off the Pacific coast, meteorologists have been scratching their heads over the appearance in 2014 of a “remarkably” warm patch −  1,500 kilometres across in every direction and 100 metres deep − that could be linked to “weird” weather across the continental US that has seen heat and drought in the west and blizzards and chills in the East.

High pressure ridge

Nicholas Bond,  a research meteorologist at the University of Washington in Seattle, and colleagues report in Geophysical Research Letters that what they have called “the blob” was linked to a persistent high pressure ridge, linked in turn to a calmer ocean during the last two northern hemisphere winters.

The blob plays a sure role in the West Coast weather. Air sweeping across it picks up heat, and this results in warmer temperatures and lower snowpack in coastal mountains − which certainly stoke up the conditions for drought.

A second study in Geophysical Research Letters links the warm Pacific puzzle to the big freeze in the eastern states in 2013 and 2014.

Once again, there doesn’t seem to be a direct connection with climate change, but it raises the spectre of changes to come.

“This is a taste of what the ocean will be like in future decades,” Dr Bond says. “It wasn’t caused by global warming, but it’s producing conditions that we think are going to be more common with global warming.”

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