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Not All Climate Change Is Equal: Some Oceans Are Already Warmer

Changes to the environment don’t happen uniformly: While some part of the oceans are warming at drastic rates, others are actually getting cooler. Welcome to our new weird planet.

Not All Climate Change Is Equal: Some Oceans Are Already Warmer
Beach, Don Johnson via Flickr

“Global warming” doesn’t capture the variability of climate change–the way the same phenomenon can cause flooding in one place, and drought in another. And even “climate change” is less descriptive than it might be, according to Hannes Baumann, an assistant professor at Stony Brook. His preferred term is “global weirding”, because the effects, he says, are sometimes counterintuitive and hard to understand.

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In a recent paper about coastal water temperatures, Baumann and Owen Doherty, of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, show how climate change is having different impacts depending on where you live. In some areas (e.g. the South American Pacific coasts) the water has been getting colder over the last 30 years. In others (e.g. the North Pacific and North Atlantic) it’s getting warmer. On the East Coast, the temperature is rising at three times the global average–meaning that global numbers aren’t particularly relevant to New Yorkers or New Englanders.

The researchers are interested in how the changes may affect the movement of wildlife, like fish. Baumann says warmer water could push some cherished species, like lobster, away from the East Coast. “On the current warming trajectory, many places on the southern New England coastlines may become unsuitable for lobsters in the next decade.”

However, the coast below Cape Hatteras, in North Carolina, has actually been getting colder. Baumann says that this could be due to a weakening of the Gulf Stream, which normally brings warmer water from the tip of Florida up the coast. Meanwhile, the South American Pacific coasts are cooling because of a process of “upwelling“, where winds sweep in colder water from deeper depths.

Because of the differences, Baumann says we’re better off focusing on specific regions rather than discussing climate change as a single thing. “Instead of the global average temperature increase over the past century, which frankly doesn’t sound too bad, it’s better to highlight the rapid succession of extremes that occur in different parts of the world.”

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About the author

Ben Schiller is a New York staff writer for Fast Company. Previously, he edited a European management magazine and was a reporter in San Francisco, Prague, and Brussels.

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