Sea Surface Temperatures at Highest in 150 Years: Species Shift with Climate Change

First Posted: Apr 26, 2013 01:14 PM EDT

Temperatures continue to rise across our planet, and ocean temperatures are no exception. According to the NOAA's Northeast Fisheries Science Center, sea surface temperatures in the Northeast Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem during 2012 were the highest recorded in 150 years.

This new announcement isn't anything new, though. It's just the latest in a trend of above average temperatures that were seen during the spring and summer seasons, and part of a pattern of elevated temperatures occurring in the Northwest Atlantic, according to the release. Yet while the temperatures aren't unusual, they could have lasting implications for the Earth's climate.

As sea surface temperatures rise, a host of related issues can occur. High temperatures can encourage algal blooms, including the notorious Red Tide which can kill fish and affect seabirds and marine mammals. Higher temperatures can also result in different species distribution, which could drastically affect fisheries.

In fact, commercially valuable species are already moving. Black sea bass, summer founder, longfin squid and butterfish are all shifting to the north as temperatures continue to warm. American lobster is also moving northward, though at a slower pace than the more southern species.

These latest findings are based on both contemporary satellite remote-sensing data and long-term, ship-board measurements, with historical recordings dating back to 1854. The temperature increase seen in 2012 was actually the highest jump seen in the time series, and one of only five times that the temperature has changed by more than 1.8 degrees.

"Changes in ocean temperatures and the timing and strength of spring and fall plankton blooms could affect the biological clocks of many marine species, which spawn at specific times of the year based on environmental cues like water temperature," said Kevin Friedland, a scientist in the NEFSC Ecosystem Assessment Program, in an interview with "The size of the spring plankton bloom was so large that the annual chlorophyll concentration remained high in 2012 despite low fall activity. These changes will have a profound impact throughout the ecosystem."

Currently, these elevated temperatures have only been seen in the Northwest Atlantic and have not been noted elsewhere in the ocean basin. That said, global sea surface temperatures are the highest now than at any other time since recordings first began in the 1880s. What these changes mean for the species currently living in the area, though, have yet to be seen.

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