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John Lindsey: Water temperatures break records

John Lindsey: Water temperatures break records

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I don’t know of any place where one can have so much fun with a bag of frozen peas than Santa Catalina Island. Last week, my family and I took the Catalina Express from Long Beach and made the channel crossing to Avalon. After checking into our hotel, one of the first things we did was snorkel in Lover’s Cove.

As we walked along the shoreline, the seawater was Catalina clear, meaning it was over 50 feet of visibility. As we entered the water, I was expecting it to be chilly. The last time I snorkeled there many years ago, I used a wetsuit. I was startled by the warmest of the sea as we swam out; it seemed more like Hawaii. In about 10 feet of water, I opened the bag of frozen peas, and we got swarmed by Garibaldi, a bright orange fish that is the official marine state fish of California and Kelp Bass -- more fish than I could imagine.

On our walk back to the hotel, I was curious about the temperature of the water that we had just swum in; turns out it was record-breaking. Scripps Institution of Oceanography scientist reported all-time high seawater temperatures on consecutive days in early August and on Aug. 8 measured a water temp of 79.2 degrees Fahrenheit at the end of the Scripps Pier, the warmest recorded since 1916, when seawater temperature recording began there.

At the same time, 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, while the Mission Bay buoy reported 79.9.

Farther north, Camp Pendleton reached 79.2 degrees, and both the Long Beach Channel and San Pedro waverider buoys reported 78.4, all record-breaking temperatures for these stations.

Honestly, I never thought I would ever see temperatures like these along the California coast.

So, what caused these record-breaking seawater temperatures in the Southern California Bight? Primarily it’s been the lack of winds in that region and the upwelling they create, but it is a complex system. The time of the year, the interaction between the California current and Southern California countercurrent, submesoscale eddies, depth of the mixing layer and thermocline, the sea-surface heat exchange rate with the atmosphere, was it cloudy or overcast. Like the “perfect storm,” it takes many factors coming together at the same time to produce record-breaking seawater temperatures.

With that said, global warming due to the greenhouse gases emitted by human activities has created the ever-rising foundation or baseline of seawater temperatures. You see, the world's oceans are the principal solar energy collector on Earth. Fortunately, water can absorb massive amounts of heat without a significant increase in temperature. If you put a balloon filled with air over a flame, it will pop in an instant. However, if that balloon is filled with water, the liquid absorbs the heat, and it will not burst. Water’s thermal conductivity (the rate it can remove or add heat) is much higher than air, which makes the ocean’s temperatures an accurate indicator of the amount of global warming that’s occurred.

The implications of increasing seawater temperatures are too numerous to list, ranging from increasing sea level due to thermal expansion of the water column, changes in weather patterns to the impacts on the marine ecosystem.

One implication that may be especially troubling are hurricanes.

Let me explain.

“Tropical cyclone” is the generic term for an organized system of convective clouds that rotate around an area of low pressure over tropical or subtropical waters. For these storms to strengthen and thrive, the seawater temperatures must be at least 80 F or higher. That’s why it’s rare for tropical cyclones to reach the California coastline, the water is too cold.

Nevertheless, it does happen. In 1939, a tropical storm slammed into Long Beach with gale-force winds and torrential rains. Mount Wilson reported 11.6 inches of rain in just 24 hours. In the Los Angeles area, 45 people drowned in the resulting flood, and high winds took 48 souls at sea.

Once these systems reach a sustained wind speed of 74 mph or greater, it’s classified as a hurricane, typhoon or cyclone. The only difference between a cyclone, hurricane or typhoon is the location in which the storm is formed. The term “hurricane” is used in the Atlantic and Pacific Northeast. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s called a “typhoon.” “Cyclones” happen in the South Pacific and the Indian Ocean.

As the seawater temperatures continue to increase in the Southern California Bight and reach 80 degrees on a more consistent basis, it does raise the probability of a tropical cyclone reaching the coastline south of Point Conception. Along the Northern and Central California coast, the waters should remain below the 80-degree mark in the foreseeable future.

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By far, the most prominent single contributor to greenhouse gases in California is transportation. Our family purchased an electric vehicle several years ago, which dramatically reduced the amount of carbon dioxide we put into the atmosphere. The electricity we use to power our cars is clean. In 2015, the energy that Pacific Gas and Electric Co. delivered to our house was about 60 percent carbon-free. That number climbed to nearly 70 percent in 2016, and in 2017 it was 80 percent.

John Lindsey is Pacific Gas and Electric Co.’s Diablo Canyon Power Plant marine meteorologist and a media relations representative. Email him at or follow him on Twitter @PGE_John.


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