Warming oceans could fuel more weather extremes

GREENVILLE, N.C. (WNCT) – Scientists have studied global warming’s effects on Earth’s climate for a few decades. Now, they’re finding that ocean temperatures play a role too. A study, published last week in the journal Nature Climate Change finds that half of the warming of the oceans over the past 150 years has come in the past 2 decades. They also found that 90% of the heat added to the climate in recent years has come from the oceans.

Scott Curtis, an atmospheric science professor at East Carolina University explains: ”When the warming occurs at the surface, then it can interact with the atmosphere and then you can have changes in the global weather patterns that potentially can cause extreme events in places where they’re not used to it.”

Short term phenomena like El Niño and La Niña already play a role in extreme weather events like the Blizzard of 2016. But looking long term, warmer ocean waters will have an even big impact on the weather.

”We may have fewer storms due to the atmosphere but the ocean will allow the storms that do develop to be very energetic and to be very strong and have high winds and high precipitation,” says Curtis.

Here in the East, the biggest impact may be on hurricanes. The storms are fueled by warm ocean waters, but it’s unclear exactly how warmer oceans will affect the overall circulation of the atmosphere. More moisture and a stronger temperature gradient offshore could also fuel stronger Nor’easters. But the East may miss out on these storms.

”A lot of studies would suggest that there’s going to be maybe a northward migration of some of these systems so maybe we’ll be spared from some of these mid-latitude cyclones,” says Curtis.

More research needs to be done on how warmer oceans will interact with the atmosphere. But with more moisture evaporating from those oceans, the potential is there.

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