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Northeast US Ocean Temperatures Highest on Record: Report

Temperature spikes causing drastic shifts in ecosystem

- Jacob Chamberlain, staff writer

Ocean surface temperatures off the Northeast U.S. coast last year were the highest in 150 years, according to a new report by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

The four subregions of the Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem, which extends from Cape Hatteras, N.C. to the Gulf of Maine. MAB is the Mid-Atlantic Bight, SNE is Southern New England, GB is Georges Bank, and GOM is the Gulf of Maine. Credit: NOAA Comparing measurements taken since 1854, the scientists from NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC) said that sea surface temperatures between Cape Hatteras and the Canadian border, the Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem, reached a record breaking average high of 57.2 degrees Fahrenheit last year.

The shifting temperatures are having a drastic impact on the under-water ecosystems of the region, the NEFSC reports, with over half of 36 fish stocks in the northwest Atlantic Ocean shifting northward in the past 40 years.

The temperature increase in 2012 alone was the highest jump in temperature ever recorded, according to the NEFSC, which analyzed data from satellite remote-sensing data and long-term ship-board measurements.

Bill Trotter at the Bangor Daily News reports that recent studies have shown a correlation between warmer waters in the Gulf of Maine and bacterial outbreaks in bivalves and in sea lice infestations; a northeasterly shift of cod in the gulf into colder waters; declining shrimp catches and a recent "glut" of soft-shell lobsters last summer "that caused a plummet in prices lobstermen were receiving for their catch."

The NEFSC reports:

Sea surface temperatures in the Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem during 2012 were the highest recorded in 150 years, according to the latest Ecosystem Advisory issued by NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center (NEFSC). These high sea surface temperatures (SSTs) are the latest in a trend of above average temperature seen during the spring and summer seasons, and part of a pattern of elevated temperatures occurring in the Northwest Atlantic, but not seen elsewhere in the ocean basin over the past century. [...]

Sea surface temperature for the Northeast Shelf Ecosystem reached a record high of 14 degrees Celsius (57.2°F) in 2012, exceeding the previous record high in 1951. Average SST has typically been lower than 12.4 C (54.3 F) over the past three decades. [...]

The temperature increase in 2012 was the highest jump in temperature seen in the time series and one of only five times temperature has changed by more than 1 C (1.8 F).

The Northeast Shelf’s warm water thermal habitat was also at a record high level during 2012, while cold water habitat was at a record low level. Early winter mixing of the water column went to extreme depths, which will impact the spring 2013 plankton bloom. Mixing redistributes nutrients and affects stratification of the water column as the bloom develops.

Temperature is also affecting distributions of fish and shellfish on the Northeast Shelf. The advisory provides data on changes in distribution, or shifts in the center of the population, of seven key fishery species over time. The four southern species - black sea bass, summer flounder, longfin squid and butterfish - all showed a northeastward or upshelf shift. American lobster has shifted upshelf over time but at a slower rate than the southern species. Atlantic cod and haddock have shifted downshelf.”

Read the full statment from the NEFSC here.