(Jan. 31, 2020) If January has seemed milder than usual this year, it’s because it has been, considerably so, according to meteorological data collected by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s weather station at the Ocean City Inlet.
In addition to experiencing no major cold snaps like last year, when the month’s lowest temperature was 16 degrees on Jan. 21, the thermometer this January spent more time in the low- to mid-40s than in recent years, and its coldest day so far was a balmy 26.1 degrees.
Altogether, this January has been 3.8 degrees warmer on average than last year, according to the NOAA data.
While that hardly constitutes scientific proof of anything, it does fall in line with the finding by NOAA and the National Aeronautics and Space Administration that last year closed out the hottest decade on record.
The year itself was the second warmest year ever globally, the two agencies determined.
The agencies said the global average surface temperatures last year were nearly 1.8 degrees Fahrenheit higher than the average from the middle of the last century. They also attributed most of the temperature rise to carbon dioxide emissions and other heat-trapping gases from burning fossil fuels.
The effects on this coastal region are undeniable, according to Dr. Bill Dennison, a scientist and professor at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Studies, and new Coastal Bays Executive Director Kevin Smith.
“Warmer temperatures create situations where water expands and it also creates situations where glaciers melt and so more water into the ocean, etc. and it ends up having an effect on our coast here,” Smith said.
Though sea level has been rising for the past 9,000 years, Smith said it’s the rate at which water is rising that is the issue. According to the Town of Ocean City, 2018 had five flood days, 2017 had four, 2016 had five and 2013 had three.
The problem isn’t just the rising average temperature, Dennison said, but also the temperature peaks.
“We’ve had a couple of incidents in the Chincoteague Bay where the extreme temperature resulted in eelgrass die-backs and we suspect … last summer was another one,” Dennison said. “That has dramatic implications for the sea life.”
Eelgrass provides food and shelter for aquatic life, which also must acclimate to a warmer climate.
Smith said he recently saw oyster catcher shorebirds in the lower Chincoteague Bay, when they usually have migrated by now. He has also noticed the arrival of different mollusk species.
“Now whether or not those particular species might out-compete the species that are native here certainly could happen, but we’ll wait and see,” Smith said.
This change also could affect commercial fisheries.
“Fisherman who might be out harvesting one particular species may change to something or might not be able to, or that particular species may decline due to warmer temperatures,” Smith said. “Other species may increase because of the warmer temperatures. There’s this flux of change that’s going on.”
Steve Doctor, a coastal fisheries biologist for the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, confirmed that the coastal bays average yearly water temperature has increased from 69.8 degrees Fahrenheit in 1989 to 72.5 degrees in 2017.
This has caused an increase in southern species, such as white shrimp and brown shrimp, trigger fish, spade fish and sheepshead, according to Doctor.
“There’s fish coming here that weren’t here before, maybe they’re just moving up the coast and the stuff that’s here will move up further, so I don’t know if it’s detrimental,” Doctor said.
Other aspects of the rise in water temperatures aren’t following the expected path. Generally, warmer water is associated with higher turbidity and decreased oxygen in the water. But that’s not happening here.
“Our data shows those opposite,” Doctor said. “We’re getting better clarity and better oxygen levels. It’s going to have to be a wait-and-see thing – what actually comes about.”
Meanwhile, certain unwanted species that have been held in check by inhospitable water temperatures could become more prolific.
“There’s some bad actors, like vibrio, the bacteria called ‘flesh-eating bacteria,’” Dennison said. “Its season is extended, so the danger of having infection by exposure to vibrio is lengthened as a result of those higher temperatures.”
Nearly all areas around the globe are warming, but not all at the same rate, according to Dennison.
“One of the sad things for us is that the mid-Atlantic, and even worse up in Maine … the Atlantic coast of the United States is one of those areas globally that’s heating more rapidly than others,” Dennison said. “We’re kind of adjacent to what we could call a ‘hot spot.’”
The coastal bays program is responding by pinpointing highly vulnerable areas and areas of resiliency.
“We’re going to protect these more vulnerable areas so we’re not building infrastructure in areas that are at risk for storm surges and rising sea level,” Smith said.