A new tool, via the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Physical Sciences Laboratory, may help forecast marine heatwave up to a year in advance. The tool was developed using 30 years of retrospective forecasts.
“We have seen marine heatwaves cause sudden and pronounced changes in ocean ecosystems around the world, and forecasts can help us anticipate what may be coming,” says lead author Michael Jacox, a research scientist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and Physical Sciences Laboratory.
This information could be especially helpful for fishermen, coastal regions, and regulators working with natural resources within the ocean. These sporadic rises in ocean temperature can have cascading effects including loss of marine life and declines in fisheries worth hundreds of millions of dollars. Marine species also move, bringing warm-water species to cooler climates, but also putting them in harm’s way if they inadvertently end up areas heavily used by humans.
Such a heatwave occurred from 2013-2016, when a warm-water “Blob” and El Niño coincided back-to-back off the coast of California. This was tied to numerous changes in the coastal Pacific Ocean, including the spread of a wasting disease that killed off many sea stars and the decimation of kelp forests. The tool also suggests that a more mild marine heatwave is currently forming in the Pacific Ocean and may be near California by this fall and stay through the winter.
Even as climate change raises ocean temperatures, El Niño-driven heatwaves will also continue to occur in the ocean. Thus, having a tool that can anticipate the occurrence of these events will be useful for proactive planning, instead of reacting once a heatwave is already underway.
“While marine heatwaves can have some unanticipated effects, knowing what’s coming allows for a more precautionary approach to lessen the impact on both fisheries and protected species,” says co-author Elliot Hazen. “Understanding the ocean is the first step towards forecasting ecological changes and incorporating that foresight into decision-making.”