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.
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
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 Nino
Meteorologists said there's a combination of
forces at work: A natural El Nino 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.
"This warm water we're
seeing doesn't just disappear next year; it'll be around for a long
time," said climate scientist Andrew Weaver of the University of
Victoria in British Columbia. It takes five times more energy to warm
water than land.
The warmer water "affects weather on the land,"
Weaver said. "This is another yet really important indicator of the
change that's occurring."
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
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.
effects of that warm water are already being seen in coral reefs, said
C. Mark Eakin, coordinator of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric
Administration's coral reef watch. Long-term excessive heat bleaches
colorful coral reefs white and sometimes kills them.
has started to crop up in the Florida Keys, Puerto Rico and the Virgin
Islands — much earlier than usual. Typically, bleaching occurs after
weeks or months of prolonged high water temperatures. That usually
means September or October in the Caribbean, said Eakin. He found
bleaching in Guam Wednesday. It's too early to know if the coral will
recover or die. Experts are "bracing for another bad year," he said.
The problems caused by the El Nino pattern are likely to get worse, the scientists say.
El Nino occurs when part of the central Pacific warms up, which in turn
changes weather patterns worldwide for many months. El Nino and its
cooling flip side, La Nina, happen every few years.
During an El
Nino, temperatures on water and land tend to rise in many places,
leading to an increase in the overall global average temperature. An El
Nino has other effects, too, including dampening Atlantic hurricane
formation and increasing rainfall and mudslides in Southern California.
water is a required fuel for hurricanes. What's happening in the oceans
"will add extra juice to the hurricanes," Curry said.
activity has been quiet for much of the summer, but that may change
soon, she said. Hurricane Bill quickly became a major storm and the
National Hurricane Center warned that warm waters are along the path of
the hurricane for the next few days.
Hurricanes need specific air
conditions, so warmer water alone does not necessarily mean more or
bigger storms, said James Franklin, chief hurricane specialist at the
National Hurricane Center in Miami.