Attempting to forecast ocean heatwaves in advance

Summer heatwave hits Southern California. REUTERS/Mike Blake
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According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, 48% of the world’s oceans experienced marine heatwaves in August, making it the hottest year for the oceans since records began in 1991. Alistair Hobday, a biological oceanographer, warns that heat waves are one of the alarming effects of climate change, threatening global biodiversity and ecosystems. His research has found a 54% increase in heat wave days in the sea from 1925 to 2016 due to climate change. Hobday advocates for naming marine heatwaves, similar to hurricanes, to raise awareness and improve marine literacy.

Ocean heatwaves last longer than heat waves on land because water retains heat longer. As heatwaves become longer and stronger, marine animals struggle to survive due to a lack of oxygen. The impact on species like corals is severe, resulting in local die-offs, disease outbreaks, and harmful algal blooms. Mass extinctions occur, affecting the food web and causing the closure of fisheries. Hobday emphasizes that ocean heatwaves provide a glimpse into our future and calls for action to prevent a worsening scenario.

Researchers are making progress in predicting marine heatwaves, providing long-term forecasts up to four months in advance. These forecasts can help companies and industries mitigate the risks associated with heatwaves. For example, Maine Lobster might adjust their purchasing arrangements with Canadian importers to avoid market oversupply during overlapping lobster seasons caused by heatwaves. The ability to predict marine heatwaves allows for strategic planning, such as delaying restoration projects until after the heatwave or safeguarding protected species.

Hobday predicts more marine heatwaves for the Great Barrier Reef in Australia this summer, potentially causing another round of bleaching. He expresses concern over the impact on this iconic national symbol and emphasizes the need to take action to protect the reef and other vulnerable ecosystems.

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