Florida’s Hot Water, Marine Heat Waves And Why Rising Ocean Temps Mean Trouble

This summer ocean temps in Florida topped 101 degrees, but this potential world record could just be a harbinger of worse to come.

On July 24, 2023, a world record for the warmest ocean temperature may have been set when a buoy reading topped 101 degrees at Manatee Bay, Florida. The current record, set in Kuwait Bay on July 30, 2020, stands at 99.7. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has not certified the Florida temperature as a new world record at this time, but that doesn’t mean what’s happening with ocean temperatures around the world isn’t of grave concern. 

The phenomenon of “marine heat waves” is having a profound effect on the world’s oceans. From super-charged storms, to mass fish die-offs, to irreversible damage to coral reefs, rising, and possibly record-setting temperatures, are already dramatically changing how we interact with and live around the sea.

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What Is A Marine Heat Wave? 

A relatively new term in the fight for the planet’s oceans, what exactly is a marine heat wave? The National Centers For Environmental Information, a chapter of NOAA, define it as “any time the ocean temperature is above the 90th percentile for five or more days in a row.”

“Marine heatwaves can last for weeks, months, or years,” they continue.

Consider that salt water covers 70% of the Earth’s surface, but in recent years has absorbed 90%1 of the greenhouse gas-related warming around the planet. In fact, there’s more heat stored in the top few yards of the ocean than there is in the Earth’s atmosphere. But when it comes to marine heat waves, they don’t get the same attention that something like the heat wave that’s plagued places like Phoenix, Arizona, this summer. A reason for this is that marine heat waves go largely unseen. Frying an egg on the sidewalk gets everyone’s attention. As do images of buckled asphalt on the roads and daily temperature readings of 115 degrees. Meanwhile, mass die-offs of, say, sea snails, hardly gets a thought. 

But as ocean temperatures around the world continue to rise this summer, we’re entering the fuck around and find out phase of this mess—and not to be an alarmist, but it’s probably going to get worse. There are no shortage of devastatingly heartbreaking examples to point to just in the past month or two.

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What Warmer Ocean Temperatures Mean

The historical fires in Lahaina, Maui, were largely a result of high winds from a nearby hurricane in the Pacific. The deadliest fire in Hawaii’s history, the tragedy was compounded by very dry conditions on Maui. And while the Hawaiian islands are no stranger to hurricane activity, the combination of warm water and dry land most certainly exacerbated the situation. 

A mere two weeks after old Lahaina town was leveled and untold people lost their lives, the first tropical storm in nearly 100 years hammered California. Hurricane Hilary marched up the Baja California Peninsula, bringing flooding and destruction with it. By the time it crossed the border it had been downgraded to a tropical storm, but still managed to set records around the Golden State, including dumping 2.2 inches of rain on Death Valley2 and shattering the previous rainfall record there by over an inch. It’s worth noting, just a month prior Death Valley clocked a temperature of 128 degrees, making it one of the hottest places on Earth.

Everywhere you look around the planet there are examples of warming oceans leading to destruction on land. The wildfires in Greece this summer have been unrelenting. Typhoon Doksuri3 in China left a path of death and destruction in its path. It will go down as the costliest typhoon to hit China. 

What’s scary is that it’s likely the worst is yet to come. Remember that 101 ocean temperature we started this piece with? Well, we’re just entering into the heart of hurricane season in the Atlantic, and with the temps around Florida and in the Gulf of Mexico pretty much off the charts, if a low pressure system starts brewing and gets on a bad track, who know what kind of fury it could unleash on the the Caribbean and U.S. 

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Warmer Waters Mean Less Fish

Weather-related disasters are just part of the story. Fish stocks are also being profoundly affected.

“Fish that prefer cold water, like cod and salmon, are particularly vulnerable to heat waves,” reads a recent report from MotherJones.com. “Warm water forces them to work harder, which means they need more food to sustain themselves. At the same time, it can make prey less accessible—say, by keeping the zooplankton salmon feast upon from rising to the surface for an easy supper.”

“These weather patterns can cause a cascade of ecosystem changes, from algal blooms to shifting whale feeding grounds, that can wreak havoc on the fishing industry,” continues the article.

If the trends of rising sea temperatures and marine heat waves continue, life as we know it around coastal regions will be forced to evolve and adapt. From hurricanes to 101-degree temperatures, floods to fires to fisheries, this is no day at the beach. 

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It’s Happening Right Now

As this piece goes to press, hurricane season has kicked into overdrive. While this is being written Hurricane Lee has exploded into a Category 5 storm in the Atlantic. At this time the storm’s path has it spinning over the ocean and never making landfall (but if you’re an East Coast surfer you’re stoked). 

Before Lee grabbed headlines, it was Hurricane Idalia marking up the west coast of Florida. The storm made landfall as a Category 3 storm. The system rapidly grew in intensity as it hit the warm water in the Gulf and graduated from a tropical storm into a full-blown hurricane that caused extensive damage and flooding in Florida.

In the Pacific, Hurricane Jova is working its way northwest off the coast of Mexico. It’s not threatening to make landfall, but like Lee, it will send plenty of swell to the coast. 

Perhaps someday we’ll look back at the summer of 2023 as “the summer the climate changed.” Of course, that’s an oversimplification, but with record land and sea temperatures, the planet’s hotter than ever and it’s already wreaking havoc on how we live. 

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