Weather Watch

‘The oceans are taking a beating’: Seawater temperatures on SLO’s coast keep getting higher

It all started here at the historic Scripps Institution of Oceanography Pier at La Jolla, the long long-term carbon dioxide (CO2) level monitoring program, like so many other oceanographic, atmospheric and biological studies they have conducted over the many decades.

The Scripps CO2 level program was initiated in 1956 by Charles David Keeling and continues through this day. Scripps also collects CO2 samples from stations mostly located on islands in the middle of the Pacific, including the famous Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii, which started in 1958.

When I wrote about the issue just two years ago, the Mauna Loa Observatory reported a CO2 level of 408 ppm, the highest ever recorded at the time. This year, it reached 415 ppm! For reference, the early measurements taken at the observatory back in the late 1950s were about 315 ppm.

In fact, before the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, CO2 levels remained below 280 ppm for hundreds of thousands of years; in other words, longer than the dawn of humanity. We precisely know the historical levels of CO2 from the analysis of air bubbles trapped in the ancient ice from Antarctica and Greenland.

This explosion in the amount of CO2 is already causing profound changes to our planet, variations not seen over such a short time in the Earth’s history. Last week, the dedicated team at Climate Central, an independent organization of leading scientists and journalists researching and reporting the facts about our changing climate and its impact on the public, brought together some of the foremost scientist and researchers on climate change at the American Meteorological Society conference held in San Diego for a series of talks.

Many of the presenters spoke about the rapidly changing conditions in the Arctic. One of the speakers was Admiral David Titley. Currently, he is a professor of meteorology at Pennsylvania State University and the founding director of their Center for Solutions to Weather and Climate Risk. He was also the former Oceanographer and Navigator for the United States Navy.

It’s the Navy and Coast Guard’s mission to deter aggression and maintain the freedom of the world’s oceans, seas and waterways. If the sea lanes of trade were cut off, much of the world economy would grind to a stop in less than two weeks.

Around 90 percent of all global commerce is conducted by the sea, and as Arctic ice extent and thickness swiftly decreases, far northern sea routes will and are currently providing shipping companies massive savings in transit time and cost and not just during the summer months, but also in winter.

Admiral Titley told us that commercial Liquefied Natural Gas (LNG) tankers, designed for icy conditions but without the aid of an icebreaker have been hauling LNG along the northern Russian coastline in February, historically near the year’s maximum ice extent.

Oceanographer and climate scientist Josh Willis of NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory in Pasadena told us, “We often forget that it’s the oceans getting the brunt of climate change. The oceans are taking a beating.”

You see, the oceans have absorbed over 90 percent of the increased heat due to human-made (anthropogenic) climate change since the Industrial Revolution with the top 2,300 feet of ocean showing warming of more than 0.4 degrees Fahrenheit. Willis and the NASA Oceans Melting Greenland (OMG) team have worked tirelessly to understand the role that ocean water plays in the melting of Greenland’s glaciers.

“Over a five-year period, OMG is observing the water temperatures on the continental shelf around Greenland to see how it changes,” Willis told me. “The sea floor plays a big part because the complex network of canyons steer that warmer water and determine whether or not it can reach the glaciers. In the long run, this Atlantic water will control just how fast the ice disappears.”

On average, the Greenland ice sheet is now losing about 281 billion tons of ice per year. This loss of ice has resulted in about ½ inch of sea level increase throughout the world. If all the ice were to melt from Greenland, it would produce about a 25-foot rise in sea level.

Even more concerning, Margaret Leinen, Director of Scripps Institute of Oceanography, gave an informative talk about ocean warming. She told us that Atmospheric Rivers are projected to increase water vapor content in the Arctic regions and therefore bring even more heat to the poles.

Locally, seawater temperatures continue to increase. Seawater temperature along the Pecho Coast — the coastal stretch between Point San Luis Lighthouse and Point Buchon just south of Montaña de Oro State Park — saw seawater temperatures reach 67.6 degrees in October 2015.

In all my years of seawater temperature monitoring, I never thought I’d see seawater temperatures of that magnitude along our coastline. Last year, numerous Coastal Data Information Program (CDIP) waverider buoys in the Southern California Bight smashed their all-time seawater temperature records. The Scripps Nearshore reached 81.3 degrees, breaking the old record 80.4 degrees set during the very strong El Niño event of 2015. The Torrey Pines waverider buoy also hit 81.3 degrees.

Today, about 5 million tons of carbon dioxide (CO2) is dumped into the atmosphere every hour from the burning of fossil fuels. To learn what you can do to reduce your carbon footprint, please visit PG&E’s website at Another excellent site is Dr. Ray Weymann’s webpage, Central Coast Climate Science Education, at

Related stories from San Luis Obispo Tribune