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As the North Atlantic Sizzles With "Utterly Unbelievable" Temperatures, the Pacific Is Now Heating up Too, Thanks to El Niño

Both air and sea surface temperatures have hit new records in June — and with El Niño, it will likely get even warmer.

ImaGeo iconImaGeo
By Tom Yulsman
Jun 21, 2023 10:00 PMJun 21, 2023 10:09 PM
El Niño Returns
Satellite data reveal areas of anomalous sea levels between June 1 and 10, 2023. Lower than average sea surface heights are in blue; normal areas are in white; and reds indicate areas with higher than normal seas. The red spear of high sea level along the equator correlates with anomalously warm temperatures characteristic of El Niño. (Credit: NASA Earth Observatory image using modified Copernicus Sentinel data.)


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With words like "unprecedented" "remarkable," and "utterly unbelievable," scientists are raising the alarm about climatic developments that have already been unfolding in 2023.

"This is getting to be utterly unbelievable," University of Miami researcher Brian McNoldy said of sizzling sea surface temperatures. In a Twitter post, he noted that "North Atlantic SSTs have just set a new record anomaly on June 20, beating the previous one from June 10."

The chances of this occurring are more than one in 18,000, McNoldy calculates.

Sea surface temperatures in the Atlantic Ocean have been running extremely warm in 2023. This map shows the situation between June 12 and 18. (Credit: NOAA)

Driven partly by the the North Atlantic's feverish warmth, global sea surface temperatures overall "hit a new high in May for the second consecutive month, and in June are tracking at unprecedented levels for this time of year," according to the World Meteorological Organization.

On June 13, the sea surface warmth was "so far above record levels it is judged almost statistically impossible to a have occurred in a climate without human-induced global heating," says Steve Turton, an environmental geographer at Central Queensland University in Australia, writing in The Conversation. The likelihood of these temperatures happening at random are about 1 in 1.2 million, he says.

Global sea surface temperatures have been running at record high levels for much of 2023. (Credit: Climate Reanalyzer)

Air temperatures at Earth's surface also are extraordinarily high. The WMO also notes that for the first half of June, global mean surface air temperatures were the highest for this time of year — "by a considerable margin."

Commenting on this unsettling development, the European Union's Copernicus Climate Change Service described it as "remarkable global warmth in early June."

Expect Even More Warmth

Unfortunately, thanks to a robustly growing El Niño in the Pacific, the planet is likely to get even warmer in coming months. That's because the climate phenomenon is associated with above-average global temperatures.

El Niño also is likely to bring a host of disruptive impacts, including droughts in some regions and deluges and floods in others. These impacts are likely to slow economic growth, possibly costing the global economy in excess of a trillion dollars, the findings of a recent study suggest.

El Niño conditions will probably continue into Northern Hemisphere winter, and "the odds of it becoming a strong event at its peak are pretty good, at 56 percent," writes the University of Miami's Emily Becker, a researcher specializing in seasonal climate prediction. "Chances of at least a moderate event are about 84 percent."

Animation of maps of sea surface temperatures in the Pacific Ocean compared to the long-term average over five-day periods from the end of January to early June 2023. The waters in the key monitoring region, which scientists call "the Niño-3.4 region," start out cooler than average (blue) and progressively become warmer than average (red) as La Niña ends and El Niño arrives. (Credit: NOAA Climate.gov)

Nature could certainly throw us a curveball, causing a swing and a miss at these odds. But we shouldn't bet on it. This El Niño has come on rather quickly, especially considering that its cool opposite, La Niña left the scene only recently. "The warm-up following our recent La Niña has been pretty remarkable," Becker says.

Moreover, a large mass of deep warm water is rising toward the surface of the equatorial Pacific, promising to help sustain El Niño, and possibly strengthen it.

A Febrile Planet

Overall, Earth is running a fever that has grown significantly worse recently, as measured by something called the earth energy imbalance. This is the difference between the amount of energy arriving from the Sun and the amount returning to space.

We enhance the imbalance through our emissions of greenhouse gases. And the 36-month running average for it is now at a record level. According to Steve Turton, it corresponds to the energy of 11 Hiroshima atomic bombs accumulating in Earth’s climate system every second over the past three years.

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