2023 has already delivered record wildfires, record temperatures, and an incredible pall of smoke that temporarily turned the Mid-Atlantic and Northeast into scenes straight out of “Bladerunner 2049.” But even as everyone has been understandably distracted this week by the tragedy of the submersible lost on its way into the depths, there has been other news from the Atlantic that points toward a bigger tragedy, and a greater threat.
For many years air temperatures haven’t reflected the true levels of energy being trapped by greenhouse gasses. Instead, most of the increased heat has been sequestered away in the oceans, much of it at depth.
But now the temperatures are reaching record levels at the surface of the ocean, and that may already be having some ominous effects.
The unusual nature of 2023 can easily be seen on this chart from climate and energy researcher Leon Simons based on data from NOAA.
When looking at this chart, look first at the title. Often climate data is compared to some date near the time when the effects of human-caused changes to the climate were broadly acknowledged, like 1980. Or some date that’s perceived as a “baseline” before the rising effects of the heavy use of coal for electricity set in, like 1900. That’s not the case here.
This chart is just looking at how the last dozen years compare to the three decades before. In that small span of time, the temperatures in the Northern Atlantic have increased appreciably, with most years bouncing around in the space between 0.3°C and 0.6°C over the baseline for 1982 to 2011.
But 2023 has broken completely free of the range of years past. Twice already the increase had reached record highs. Now it’s moving up with a magnitude that seems wholly unlike any past year. The extent to which this will contribute to weather or affect the diminishing arctic ice is not year clear.
So far this year, the extent of Arctic ice is low, but not as low as it was during the record low year of 2012. However, the loss of ice could easily accelerate if the surface water temperature continues to climb.
Loss of that ice not only has an immediate impact on the ecology of the northern seas, it changes everything from weather in Europe to the economic viability of Alaskan villages. Loss of ice also creates a feedback loop. Clear blue water absorbs much more energy than reflective white ice. Which warms the surface. Which melts the ice.
And though it’s happening in the south Atlantic rather than the north, there’s another signal of our warming seas that sends an immediately dire signal.
This is the National Hurricane Center’s map of storms in the Atlantic. Tropical Storm Bret is currently moving almost due west into the southeastern Caribbean Sea. For the moment, it’s carrying winds of only around 58 miles per hour and it’s not expected to hit anywhere, not even an island.
Tropical Storm Cindy is following a somewhat different path, moving off to the northwest. However it’s also expected to expend its energy over the ocean, falling apart at sea without causing any damage.
So what’s so bad about two storms that aren’t going to hurt anyone, except perhaps for some unfortunate boaters? They’re important precisely because there are two of them. This is the first time there have been two tropical storms in the Atlantic in June. The first time since the National Hurricane Center started keeping track.
The oceans were the warmest they have ever been in 2019. And then in 2020. And 2022. And now 2023. The relentless year after year announcement of new record highs and new record storms can generate complacency. Hey, we hit a record last year and the year before that. What’s one more? But each of these records should sound like an alarm bell, signaling the need for both more action to reduce the impact of the climate crisis, and legislation to assist those already being threatened by our changing world.
Earlier this year, NOAA forecast a “near-normal hurricane season”—12 to 17 named storms and five to nine hurricanes. But we’ve already had three named storms while the season is only three weeks old. And these storms are also forming in a section of the Atlantic between Africa and the Caribbean that should be quiet this time of year. It would be quiet except for the record-high water temperatures across the region.
A new study published in Nature this week shows how the ecosystems around us have been hollowed out and made fragile by the climate crisis. Now the absolute collapse of those ecosystems could be closer than anyone wants to believe. Using models of four different types of ecosystems—the Chilika lagoon fishery, the Easter Island community, forest dieback, and lake water quality—researchers from universities in the U.K. showed that past estimates failed to account for all the secondary effects these communities face in addition to the direct pressures from temperature increases.
Temperatures that were regarded as relatively safe can actually trigger an ecosystem collapse when additional stress factors are considered. Droughts can be more severe. Storms more powerful. Water chemistry can change as warmer water holds less dissolved oxygen needed for breathing as well as less of the minerals needed to build shells and bones.
We are seeing one of those additional stress factors: erratic and unusual events. Ecosystems we expected to remain stable for decades are much closer to a total unraveling than we expected. As the study in Nature noted, when all the factors are considered, some of these systems that were thought to be stable through the next century are likely to fall apart in our lifetimes, with the time to failure shorted by 38% to 81%.
The collapse of the Titan submarine was a tragedy for the families of those involved. The collapse of an ecosystem is a disaster for the world. It would be nice to think we might get some fraction of the same attention devoted to the threat that threatens to crush us all.