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'Climate Armageddon': Scientists observe sea temperatures rise in UK

File - Kelp
File - Kelp Copyright AP Photo
Copyright AP Photo
By Luke Hanrahan
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Sea temperatures impact kelp and seagrass, which support ecosystems around Europe exactly the same way as coral does. Without them, marine diversity will be in danger.

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Off the southwest coast of Britain, on the surface of the North Atlantic Ocean, scientists from the Marine Biological Association have been observing alarming sea surface temperatures.

For Dr Dan Smale from the Marine Biological Association, it's a constant concern – but this year more than ever. At the beginning of the summer, temperatures were up to five degrees warmer than average.

"Sea temperatures are still almost two degrees higher than the long-term average and that’s been the case for almost all of this year,” Dr Smale says.

The team hasn’t just been observing the temperatures. It has also been analysing sea kelp in southwest England for over a decade. But for the team of Marine biologists, the temperatures were so high they stressed the kelp to the limit of what it could cope with.

And that matters because it’s the foundation of the marine ecosystems that surround Britain.

“A few degrees doesn’t sound like very much,"  Cat Wilding from Marine Biological Association said.

"[But] from a marine environment that is relatively very thermally stable, but that could potentially have a huge impact, that’s what our research is hoping to find out." 

Kelp and seagrass support ecosystems around Europe exactly the same way as coral does. But unlike coral, kelp is found in huge quantities across the globe in different temperatures, from oceans – to the Arctic.

“It does feel like climate Armageddon might be getting a little bit closer," Wilding says. Some of the things we’ve considered almost fantasy and science fiction are at risk of happening in our lifetimes.”

Data collated by the Copernicus, the earth observation component of the European Union’s space programme, highlights 2023 as an alarming year in terms of surface sea temperature.

“We’ve seen examples on the Pacific where we’ve had die-offs and big oxygen low zones associated with the warming and it wouldn’t be untrue to say that we may be on the verge of seeing that in the UK and European seas as well,” warned Professor Helen Findlay at Plymouth Marine Laboratory.

As temperatures test the foundations of marine ecosystems – scientists continue to analyse what’s in store in the short term – and what the oceans could look like for future generations.

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