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Experts raise concerns about record-breaking phenomenon observed in Atlantic Ocean: 'It's just astonishing'

The conditions in the ocean have a dramatic effect on weather worldwide.

The conditions in the ocean have a dramatic effect on weather worldwide.

Photo Credit: iStock

The ocean's temperature is a major cornerstone of the environment's health because it's a driving force in the world's climate patterns. Now, researchers are worried because the ocean's temperature is smashing through past records, especially in the North Atlantic, The New York Times reports.

What's happening?

For decades, the world's temperature has been rising due to air pollution that traps heat inside the atmosphere. The current El Niño weather pattern is also raising the heat.

Rising ocean temperatures are to be expected in the circumstances, but the most recent temperature spike has been extreme, setting all-time records.

Cambridge marine scientist Rob Larter told the Times, "We all know that there's been a rapid warming, particularly over the last few decades. But over the last 18 months, it's jumped up beyond what we expected."

The exact cause of the sudden spike is unknown, but there are some factors that are likely contributing. According to the Times, the North Atlantic has been less cloudy than normal, and winds haven't been as strong, so they aren't helping pull up cold water from deep in the ocean.

Plus, recent changes in shipping regulations have led to a lower sulfur content in the fuel used by container ships. Unlike many other types of pollution, sulfur-based air pollution blocks sunlight and helps cool the Earth. Now the air is clearer and more of the sun's energy is reaching the ocean to warm it.

Watch now: What's the true environmental impact of renewable energy?

Why does the warmer water matter?

The conditions in the ocean have a dramatic effect on weather worldwide. For example, when the temperature is higher in the Atlantic, we have a longer and more severe hurricane season. This year is shaping up to be intense.

"Compared to other fairly significant hurricane seasons, this is way warmer at this point in the year," Brian McNoldy, a hurricane expert from the University of Miami, told the Times. " ... The North Atlantic has been record-breakingly warm for almost a year now. It's just astonishing."

Warmer water also interrupts the normal yearly cycle of ice melting and refreezing in the Arctic. "What's bad news for sea ice has a lot of knock-on effects," Larter said. "The formation of sea ice is the process that really drives a lot of the ocean's circulation. And if the overturning circulation slows down, that really has climate impacts across the world."

What is being done about the rising temperature?

Scientists predict that if the average temperature of the Earth stays more than 2.7 degrees hotter than in the late 1800s, we'll see serious and irreversible effects. That's why nations worldwide have entered into the Paris Agreement to limit air pollution and try to bring the temperature back down.

While any action or change in habits may seem like it would make only a small difference, enough people doing so over many years can have a bigger impact. You can do your part, for example, by switching from gasoline and natural gas to electric cars and appliances, among a number of other clean journeys outlined in the TCD Guide.

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