The Inertia for Good Editor
ocean warming, climate change, global warming, oxford university, climate change research

Scientists found a new way to remind us that the planet is warming by studying “surprise” ocean heat waves. Photo: Unsplash

The Inertia

The sky is blue. Two plus two equals four. We live on a big rock that is the shape of a sphere. And climate change is a thing we should all probably take seriously.

To many people, those four statements are undeniable facts. But funny enough, we all run into somebody every once in awhile who refutes one (or all) of them because being an antagonist is fun. Sadly, that last statement — the one about the planet getting warmer — is something a scary amount of humans still like to either ignore altogether or just argue about. Which is probably why researchers are constantly spending a lot of time collecting data and conducting studies to be able to say, “Hey this is real, so we would like to fix it.”

In the latest reminder that our planet is getting warmer and warmer all the time, researchers published a study in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences in which they came up with a whole new way to demonstrate the reality of ocean heatwaves. “Surprise” ocean heatwaves, as they call them now, were studied to understand how dramatically these events can impact us.

“I wondered what would happen if you allow the reference points to shift as new information comes in,” said Andrew Pershing, the chief science officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute who led the study. “This led us down a path toward thinking about how ecosystems and people will adjust to warmer conditions, and what rate of change will be really stressful.”


So what are surprise ocean heatwaves and how are they any different from just generic ocean heatwaves?

Researchers collected annual temperature data from 65 large ocean regions for more than 150 years, dating back to 1854. Each year’s data was cross-referenced with the 30 years preceding it, and if that year’s temperature was either two standard deviations above or below the mean of the previous three decades, they dubbed that region to have experienced a “surprise” climate shift. So, in the simplest terms possible, they weren’t just looking for ocean heatwaves as much as they were looking for freak ocean heatwaves; the most randomly occurring or drastic ones. What they found was that the Arctic and Atlantic oceans have been experiencing a notable upswing in surprise years since the 1980s, predominantly of the warming variety, while there have been just four cooling surprises since 2000. And in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, surprise heat waves have been picking up since 2010 as well, meaning we’re not just seeing more ocean heat waves, we’re also seeing more dramatic ones.

“Across the 65 ecosystems we examined, we expected about six or seven of them would experience these ‘surprises’ each year,” explains Pershing. “Instead, we’ve seen an average of 12 ecosystems experiencing these warming events each year over the past seven years, including a high of 23 ‘surprises’ in 2016.”


Unsurprisingly (pun intended), Pershing and his team predict this trend to pick up more steam in the future.

“We are entering a world where history is an unreliable guide for decision making,” says Pershing. “In a rapidly changing world, betting that trends will continue is a much better strategy.”


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