Climate Change Research Spotlight

Sea Surface Temperatures on the Rise in the Caribbean

A 30-year climate analysis reveals an increase in sea surface temperatures in the Caribbean, the Gulf of Mexico, and the surrounding region.

Source: Geophysical Research Letters

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The elegant chaos of Earth’s oceans drives a complex system of exchanges, as landmasses and bodies of water trade heat, moisture, and energy with the atmosphere. These interactions, and the changes in global climate that drive them, are manifested in variations of temperature along the ocean’s surface.

Sea surface temperature offers insight into the behavior of climatological phenomena like convection cells, tropical storms and hurricanes, and prevailing winds. These mechanisms converge in the Intra-Americas Region (IAR), which includes the Caribbean, Mexico, Central America, and parts of North and South America.

The region is also home to phenomena like the midsummer drought and the Atlantic Warm Pool, which work in conjunction with small-scale mechanisms to transport moisture—and storms—to North America. This vital function makes the IAR particularly sensitive to changes in climate. Determining how climate change affects the IAR is crucial to understanding how global temperature changes will manifest locally.

The IAR and detected sea surface temperature trends (19822012; °C/yr) and climatological winds. Credit: NOAA-CREST Center
The IAR and detected sea surface temperature trends (1982–2012; °C/yr) and climatological winds. Credit: NOAA-CREST Center

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and the NOAA Cooperative and Remote Sensing Science and Technology Center at the City College of New York studied sea surface temperature in an effort to clarify its importance in IAR climate dynamics. Glenn et al. examined high-resolution satellite data collected between 1982 and 2012 and observed an overall warming trend, with the most significant increase occurring over the past 15 years. Warming was greatest in the Gulf of Mexico, just north of South America, and appeared to coincide with large-scale phenomena like the El Niño–Southern Oscillation and the early and late Caribbean rainy seasons.

Such trends point to the correlation between sea surface temperature and large-scale processes—a symbiotic relationship that drives the global climate. The IAR is complicated, but a systematic approach will help scientists build a more precise picture of the climate mechanisms that affect infrastructure, economies, and lives. (Geophysical Research Letters, doi:10.1002/2015GL065002, 2015)

—Lily Strelich, Freelance Writer

Citation: Strelich, L. (2015), Sea surface temperatures on the rise in the Caribbean, Eos, 96, doi:10.1029/2015EO039535. Published on 13 November 2015.

© 2015. The authors. CC BY-NC 3.0