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Hurricanes, heatwaves and rising seas: The impacts of record ocean heat

Getty Images A boat cuts a path through a layer of slime on the sea near the shore of Turkey's Marmara Sea (Credit: Getty Images)Getty Images
Excessive phytoplankton growth can choke the sea surface with a jelly-like layer of slime known as “sea snot” as ocean temperatures increase (Credit: Getty Images)

Record ocean temperatures suggest the seas are warming faster than expected, and the impacts will be felt from polar ice shelves to coastal cities across the globe.

The world’s oceans are like a planet-sized battery: they absorb huge amounts of heat, which is then released slowly. So far, our oceans have soaked up over 90% of the heat trapped in the Earth’s atmosphere by rising greenhouse gas emissions. But recently, their rate of warming has been dramatic.

Every day since late March 2023, global ocean surface temperatures have set new records for the hottest temperature ever recorded on that date. On 47 of those days, temperatures have also surpassed previous highs by the largest margin seen in the satellite era, according to data from the European Union’s Copernicus Climate Change Service. (Read the analysis of the data in this article by the BBC News Climate and Science team.)

In February 2024, the world had breached 1.5C warming of surface air temperatures for a full year. But in some regions last year, ocean temperatures were similar to those expected if overall global warming of surface air temperatures reached 3C above pre-industrial levels – suggesting quicker ocean heating than expected.

This rapid heating raises a puzzle for scientists: why is recent ocean warming even greater than models suggest?

“The step-change in ocean temperatures over last year is huge,” says Hayley Fowler, professor of climate change impacts at Newcastle University in the UK. “The fact we can’t simulate these step-change increases and understand why it’s happening is terrifying.”

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