Skip to main content

Heat waves happen in the oceans, too — and they’re getting worse

A major United Nations report shows how oceans are feeling the burn from climate change

Share this story

Coral Reefs And White Death

Oceans are increasingly taking the heat from climate change, according to a major new report released today by the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC). The report is arguably one of the most comprehensive assessments to date on the effects of climate change on the Earth’s oceans and frozen water. And it points to a problem scientists are growing more concerned about: marine heat waves.

There’s plenty of robust scientific evidence that shows that extreme heat events on land are getting worse as climate change accelerates. But land dwellers aren’t the only ones feeling the burn. A growing body of research is examining similar events underwater, when the seas experience periods of unusually warm temperatures.

“This is a phenomena that we should be placing higher attention on,” Ko Barrett, vice chair of the IPCC, said in a press briefing. Marine heat waves, she said, are an “emerging issue” and this is the first time that the United Nations body has dedicated so much study to it.

More than 100 scientists spanning over 30 countries contributed to the study, called the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. It was unveiled during a meeting of the intergovernmental panel in Monaco just one day after the United Nations held a special summit in New York where Secretary-General António Guterres called on countries to step up their plans to avert climate crisis. 

The frequency of heat waves in oceans has very likely doubled since 1982

The report found that the frequency of heat waves in oceans has very likely doubled since 1982. And things are probably going to get worse. By 2081, the frequency of these extreme events could jump by 20 to 50 times, depending on how successful the world is at cutting down on the greenhouse gas emissions heating our planet. In a scenario with continued high emissions, those underwater extreme heat events could become ten times more intense. 

They’re already brutal. In 2014 and 2015, a heat wave called “the Blob” appeared in the Pacific and wreaked havoc on marine ecosystems from Hawaii to Alaska. The high temperatures can kill coral reefs, strand sea lions on shore, and shut down fisheries and crabbing. And since ocean temperatures have an effect on weather systems, the blob even came after California — contributing to an epic drought in 2014 that the American Geophysical Union said was the worst in the region in 1,200 years

“I’d say this is an important area of scientific understanding that’s emerged in the last few years,” Stanford professor and senior fellow Noah Diffenbaugh, who was not involved with the IPCC report, tells The Verge. “We’re seeing an emergence of these marine heatwaves in the ocean conditions, we’re seeing an emergence of their impacts on ecosystems and communities. And we’re seeing an emergence of their remote influence on weather and climate over land.”

There’s a potentially concerning new “blob” — an area of unusually warm water marked red on maps — developing in the Pacific that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration is monitoring. “It’s on a trajectory to be as strong as the prior event,” Andrew Leising, a research scientist at NOAA Fisheries’ Southwest Fisheries Science Center in La Jolla, California, said in a statement from the agency this month. “Already, on its own, it is one of the most significant events that we’ve seen.” The agency acknowledged that previously unexpected events like the Blob are becoming more common.

“we don’t know what fires are being lit under the sea”

Even outside of these heat waves, the ocean is warming up. The report found that the rate of ocean warming has likely more than doubled since 1993. The ocean is storing more than 90 percent of the excess heat generated by human activity. “The ocean is sort of becoming the sacrificial lamb,” Francisco Chavez, senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, tells The Verge. He says we need to be paying much more attention to how that’s affecting life at sea. 

“We can immediately tell that there’s these enormous forest fires consuming parts of the Amazon forest, for example, but we don’t know what fires are being lit under the sea,” Chavez says. “The ocean is kind of out of sight out of mind, compared to the terrestrial systems.”

Of course, there’s more to worry about than the temperature rising, according to the IPCC report. Climate change is also contributing to oxygen loss and increased acidity in the ocean. And water woes are reaching land as the rate of sea-level rise due to ice melt and warm ocean water expanding increases.  

“The consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe. This report highlights the urgency of timely, ambitious, coordinated and enduring action,” IPCC’s Barrett said. “What’s at stake is the health of ecosystems, wildlife, and importantly, the world we leave our children.”

Today’s Storystream

Feed refreshed 46 minutes ago Midjourneys

A
External Link
Andrew J. Hawkins46 minutes ago
Harley-Davidson’s electric motorcycle brand is about to go public via SPAC

LiveWire has completed its merger with a blank-check company and will make its debut on the New York Stock Exchange today. Harley-Davison CEO Jochen Zeitz called it “a proud and exciting milestone for LiveWire towards its ambition to become the most desirable electric motorcycle brand in the world.” Hopefully it also manages to avoid the cash crunch of other EV SPACs, like Canoo, Arrival, Faraday Future, and Lordstown.


A
The Verge
Andrew WebsterAn hour ago
“There’s an endless array of drama going on surrounding Twitch right now.”

That’s Ryan Morrison, CEO of Evolved Talent Agency, which represents some of the biggest streamers around. And he’s right — as you can read in this investigation from my colleague Ash Parrish, who looked into just what’s going on with Amazon’s livestreaming service.


J
External Link
Jess WeatherbedTwo hours ago
Won’t anyone think of the billionaires?

Forbes reports that rising inflation and falling stock prices have collectively cost members of the Forbes 400 US rich list $500 billion in 2022 with tech tycoons suffering the biggest losses.

Jeff Bezos (worth $151 billion) lost $50 billion, Google’s Larry Page and Sergey Brin (worth a collective $182b) lost almost $60b, Mark Zuckerberg (worth $57.7b) lost $76.8b, and Twitter co-founder Jack Dorsey (worth $4.5b) lost $10.4b. Former Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer (worth $83b) lost $13.5b while his ex-boss Bill Gates (worth $106b) lost $28b, albeit $20b of that via charity donations.


T
Thomas Ricker6:45 AM UTC
Check out this delightful DART Easter egg.

Just Google for “NASA DART.” You’re welcome.


R
Twitter
Richard Lawler12:00 AM UTC
A direct strike at 14,000 mph.

The Double Asteroid Redirection Test (DART) scored a hit on the asteroid Dimorphos, but as Mary Beth Griggs explains, the real science work is just beginning.

Now planetary scientists will wait to see how the impact changed the asteroid’s orbit, and to download pictures from DART’s LICIACube satellite which had a front-row seat to the crash.


M
The Verge
We’re about an hour away from a space crash.

At 7:14PM ET, a NASA spacecraft is going to smash into an asteroid! Coverage of the collision — called the Double Asteroid Redirection Test — is now live.


E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 26
There’s a surprise in the sky tonight.

Jupiter will be about 367 million miles away from Earth this evening. While that may seem like a long way, it’s the closest it’s been to our home planet since 1963.

During this time, Jupiter will be visible to the naked eye (but binoculars can help). You can check where and when you can get a glimpse of the gas giant from this website.


E
Twitter
Emma RothSep 26
Missing classic Mario?

One fan, who goes by the name Metroid Mike 64 on Twitter, just built a full-on 2D Mario game inside Super Mario Maker 2 complete with 40 levels and eight worlds.

Looking at the gameplay shared on Twitter is enough to make me want to break out my SNES, or at least buy Super Mario Maker 2 so I can play this epic retro revamp.


R
External Link
Russell BrandomSep 26
The US might still force TikTok into a data security deal with Oracle.

The New York Times says the White House is still working on TikTok’s Trump-era data security deal, which has been in a weird limbo for nearly two years now. The terms are basically the same: Oracle plays babysitter but the app doesn’t get banned. Maybe it will happen now, though?


R
External Link
Russell BrandomSep 26
Edward Snowden has been granted Russian citizenship.

The NSA whistleblower has been living in Russia for the 9 years — first as a refugee, then on a series of temporary residency permits. He applied for Russian citizenship in November 2020, but has said he won’t renounce his status as a U.S. citizen.