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Climate IQ: How warming ocean temperatures impact the Earth

There have been a lot of headlines recently about heat waves – both on land and in the sea.

CHARLOTTE, N.C. — Ocean waters encompass approximately 71% of the Earth. It’s a life source for humans, animals and deep-sea creatures alike. But as climate change increases marine heating across the globe, many of these vital needs are dwindling.

This can have major impacts on human life -- both directly and indirectly.

Carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses are causing global temperatures to rise but only 10% of that excess heat influences us on land and the ocean’s surface; 90% of excess heat is stored below the ocean’s surface.

This has allowed for marine heat waves to become approximately 20 times more common.

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Zac Cannizzo is a climate coordinator and marine biologist for the National Marine Protected Areas Center & NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries. He said a marine heat wave is when the water temperature is above the 90th percentile of the average for about three to five days.

But as our average continues to rise, so will the absolute temperature of the water.

“For our ocean animals and ocean plants, the most direct impact is that it causes stress -- just think about how you feel when it's warmer than normal,” he explained. “When it gets warmer, you get stressed out, you kind of feel uncomfortable. Now imagine not being able to escape that, because our ocean animals sometimes can't.”

This warming can result in changes to coastal fisheries, migration patterns, circulation patterns which bring nutrient-rich deep sea waters to the surface, the frequency and intensity of harmful algal blooms.

There’s also a link to decline in fish populations due to reduced oxygen in our ocean water, which is correlated with more CO2.

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Coral bleaching is also sparked by corals being overheated or overly stressed. Corals provided habitat, food, and shelter for ocean organisms that may die off without it.

Howard Diamond is the Climate Science Program Manager with NOAA’s Air Resources Laboratory. He said coral reefs dying off are very bad ecologically. They can also act as a barrier for high waves during hurricanes.

"Coral reefs act as nature’s defense by protecting sensitive coastlines from storm surge inundation," Diamond said.

Warming ocean waters can also result in more intense hurricanes and storms in general because warm water acts like fuel for storms. Additionally, warm air can hold more water vapor leading to heavier rainfall events.

The combined result is stronger, more intense storms all around the globe.

“So the storms become stronger, they have more rainfall," Cannizzo said. "So you get effects like greater flooding, greater coastal flooding, all of these things that we're seeing with these progressively stronger storms and hurricanes that are hitting our coasts."

Warm ocean waters also contribute to sea-level rise through a process called thermal expansion of water. Essentially, as warm warms, it expands.

All of these changes can also lead to declining tourism and job loss, especially for coastal communities.

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“The oceans have been saving us for a long time, they're a tremendous sink of carbon dioxide and heat," Diamond said. "But if they get warmer and warmer, the CO2 that they're storing is going to return itself back to the atmosphere, and it's going to exacerbate the heating."

Both experts said slowing down our warming oceans and mitigating the impacts of climate change is up to all of us. Collectively, these little impacts from each individual person can add up and make a difference.

So, what can you do at home to lower your influence on climate change?

  • Reduce, reuse and recycle
  • Lower your emissions (i.e. thermostat a few degrees higher in summer/low in winter, reduce trips in your car, carpool, take public transit, walk)
  • Consider switching the way you power your home or what car you drive
  • Turn off devices when they aren’t being used
  • Eat more vegetables (plant-based foods use less greenhouse gas emissions)
  • Throw away less food
  • For corals, try to reduce their additional stress (wear coral-safe sunscreen, reduce fertilizer and/or herbicide)

Contact Brittany Van Voorhees at bvanvoorhe@wcnc.com and follow her on FacebookX and Instagram. 

WCNC Charlotte’s Weather IQ YouTube channel gives detailed explainers from the WCNC Charlotte meteorologists to help you learn and understand weather, climate and science. Watch previous stories where you can raise your Weather IQ in the YouTube playlist below and subscribe to get updated when new videos are uploaded.

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