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Europe and America are — quite literally — in hot water, but transatlantic attention is focused elsewhere.
For months, scientists have been sounding the alarm over unusual upswings in land and ocean temperatures.
The beginning of July marked the planet’s hottest week in recorded history. Last month was the warmest-ever June. The arrival of a strong El Niño is likely to push global temperatures even higher, whipping up extreme weather worldwide.
Meanwhile, the seas are heating up and temperatures in the North Atlantic in particular are “off the charts,” as European scientists put it.
Taken together, “it is a good demonstration of the fact that we are in uncharted territory,” said Carlo Buontempo, director of the EU’s Copernicus climate change monitoring service.
Yet leaders and lawmakers on either side of the ocean remain mostly preoccupied with the war in Ukraine and its economic fallout.
As catastrophic flooding hit Vermont and Turkey and brutal heat swept across Southern Europe and multiple U.S. states this week, political attention remained firmly on the NATO summit taking place in Lithuania.
While NATO leaders identified climate change as “a defining challenge with a profound impact on Allied security,” they did so only near the end of Tuesday’s joint communiqué, with more words devoted to tackling threats linked to cybersecurity or space.
Buontempo was reluctant to criticize leaders, but he said: “Mine is a plea to all politicians to look at the facts, to look at the data we have, and react to those.”
Oceans heating up
Earth is already 1.2 degrees Celsius hotter than in the preindustrial era. The developing El Niño, a naturally occurring weather phenomenon in the Pacific, is expected to exacerbate this man-made warming trend.
The World Meteorological Organization has warned that this El Niño — which comes after the planet spent three years under the influence of La Niña, the cooling phase of the Pacific cycle — is set to “push global temperatures into uncharted territory.”
El Niño’s full effect won’t take hold until later this year, however, and isn’t to blame for the temperature anomalies in the Atlantic.
“We’re seeing these high temperatures in the North Atlantic despite the fact that El Niño hasn’t really got going yet,” Michael Sparrow, head of the WMO’s climate research division, told reporters this week.
While the warming is particularly pronounced in the Northeastern Atlantic, global sea surface temperatures have been hitting record highs for the past three months.
In June, a marine heat wave warmed waters around the British Isles to more than 5 degrees Celsius above normal; some coastal areas of Florida are currently surrounded by what one expert called “bathtub water” of more than 30C.
It’s not fully clear what’s fueling these spikes, although scientists are certain that man-made climate change plays a leading role. Copernicus says a mix of global warming trends and “unusual” atmospheric circulation is driving the marine anomalies.
Scientists also point to the sharp reduction in pollution from shipping since 2020, when strict rules came into effect to protect human and environmental health.
Those have led to a 10 percent drop in emissions of sulfur dioxide, which has a cooling effect — giving a slight boost to global warming. A recent analysis by Carbon Brief found that this contributes the equivalent of two years’ worth of global emissions.
Climate scientists have also identified an unusual absence of Saharan dust — which tends to reflect the sun’s warming rays — over the Atlantic in recent months.
Smashed heat records
Oceans absorb most of the warming humans have produced, but the heat doesn’t all stay there.
“When the oceans are particularly warm, it means they warm the atmosphere considerably as well,” Sparrow said.
The planet’s hottest-ever week was July 3 to 9, the WMO said Monday, citing Copernicus data.
Besides the current high ocean temperatures and the broader warming trend, two additional factors likely helped raise the world’s average daily temperature to a record 17.2C last week.
Changes to the polar jet stream pattern, which some scientists believe is linked to climate change, are increasingly trapping high-pressure systems bringing hot and dry conditions. Such blocking highs have helped fuel Canada’s devastating wildfires, for example.
Then there’s the 2022 undersea volcanic eruption in Tonga. While above-ground volcanoes can spew cooling sulfur into the stratosphere, a recent study found last year’s eruption sent massive amounts of water vapor skyward — likely having a slight warming effect.
The higher the global average temperature, the more intense and frequent dangerous heat waves become. Italian meteorologists have warned that the country could break the European heat record of 48.8C this week.
Extreme heat can be dangerous by itself — a study this week found that more than 60,000 Europeans died due to heat last summer — and can have devastating consequences for ecosystems, which may affect food security.
This summer, because of the abnormally warm waters, Florida’s corals are at an unprecedented risk of bleaching events, an existential threat to reefs.
Marine heat waves also threaten fisheries and, by extension, humans and animals that rely on them for food.
Mexico’s government said last month that hundreds of birds found starved to death were victims of the developing El Niño, whose warming effect can drive fish into deeper, cooler waters where seabirds can’t get to.
Higher land and ocean temperatures contribute to ice loss at the poles, which accelerates global warming as dark seawater absorbs more radiation than white ice sheets. Scientists are particularly concerned about the record low in Antarctic sea ice this year.
They also set the stage for more extreme weather in Europe and around the globe.
“The North Atlantic is one of the key drivers of extreme weather in Europe, and also on the other side of the Atlantic,” said Omar Baddour, head of the WMO’s climate monitoring division. The warm waters could fuel strong hurricanes or extreme rainfall, he added.
With all this scientific data out there, Buontempo says society and politics must now make use of it.
“We have data that tell us what is the climate of today, and what is likely to be the climate of tomorrow, and it would be unwise not to use that information,” he said. “Ask any business leader — if you know something about the future, use it. It would be stupid not to.”