Climate change upheaval seen brewing in atmosphere, oceans

Remember 2014?

Though 2015 is barely three weeks old, there's already one analysis of the year just ended that's raising some alarms. According to NASA and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the average temperature of the planet in 2014 was the warmest since the start of record keeping in 1880. The average global temperature for 2014 was calculated at 58.24 degrees Fahrenheit, 1.4 degrees above the average.

President Obama referred to the finding in his State of the Union speech on Tuesday, calling it yet more evidence that action is needed to reduce fossil fuel emissions of carbon dioxide that are trapping Earth's heat and driving climate change.

"One year doesn't make a trend," he said, "but this does: 14 of the 15 warmest years on record have fallen in the first 15 years of this century."

Peter Siver, Becker professor of botany and director of the Environmental Studies Program at Connecticut College in New London, said the 2014 numbers must be considered in a bigger context. The mind-boggling volume of data used to calculate the global average temperature is significant mostly for its long-term implications for where the planet is heading as carbon levels in the atmosphere continue increasing, he said.

"I put a lot more weight on the trend data," Siver said. "And I would almost go on record predicting that 2015 will be the warmest year."

But for many residents of southeastern Connecticut and, for that matter, the rest of the Northeast, the news may sound more like an abstract scientific numbers game than a message about an imminent threat they need to pay attention to. After all, temperatures for much of 2014 were cooler than the long-term average for the Northeast. The average temperature in Connecticut for the three months of last summer, measured at Bradley Airport in Windsor Locks, was 71.7, just a hair over the long-term average of 71.4 - hardly a heat wave of disastrous proportions.

The NASA and NOAA findings were reached by separate analyses of data from 6,300 weather stations and ship- and buoy-based observations, plus measurements from research stations in the Antarctic, according to NASA. The agency noted that wide temperature variability across the planet is mostly the result of short-term weather dynamics.

Hot time in Alaska

The independent environmental group Climate Central, in its statement on the data, noted that for the Russian Far East, Alaska, the U.S. West, Australia and parts of Europe, 2014 was the hottest year on record. But what really stood out, the group said, was the average ocean temperature. Since oceans cover more than 70 percent of Earth's surface, sea water temperatures have a huge bearing on the global average. For 2014, ocean temperatures averaged 62 degrees, more than one degree higher than the 20th-century mean, according to NOAA.

James O'Donnell, director of the Connecticut Institute for Resilience and Climate Adaptation, said the global average temperature is a valuable way to illustrate the impact of carbon buildup in the atmosphere. The institute is located at the University of Connecticut's Avery Point campus in Groton.

O'Donnell, who is also a marine science professor at UConn, said the institute is gathering information from coastal towns on ways to enhance their ability to adapt and respond to rising sea levels, intense storms and other climate change effects. Once that is complete, he said, a plan will be developed and submitted to the federal government for funding.

Even if people in southeastern Connecticut didn't feel record-breaking heat in 2014, there are indirect effects, he said. Produce from areas that were sweltering could cost more, for example. And a warming planet overall increases the likelihood of more intense rainstorms and flooding locally, as well as rising sea levels.

"These things echo around the world," he said.

Sound warming

In southeastern Connecticut, some of the most pronounced effects of a changing climate are being exhibited in Long Island Sound. There, average temperatures for July and August have increased one degree since 1976. That has warmed the water beyond the level lobsters can tolerate consistently since 1998,according to the state Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

In 2012, due to exceptionally warm water in the Sound, one of the two operating nuclear power plants at the Millstone Power Station was forced to shut down. The sea water used to cool the plant had exceeded the temperature the plant was authorized to use.

Millstone has since obtained permission from the Nuclear Regulatory Commission to use cooling water up to 80 degrees after demonstrating that the plant design was capable of tolerating the higher temperature.

In spring and fall trawl surveys of fish species in the Sound, DEEP has found the number and abundance of cold-water species such as winter flounder declined from 1980 to the present, while warm-water species such as moonfish, sea robin and hickory shad have increased.

"Some of these changes are very subtle," O'Donnell said, "but it's important to keep people's attention on the issue."

Twitter: @BensonJudy


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