By Lambert Strether of Corrente.
Since it’s snowing this evening, again, I though I’d write something on climate, which I know is not weather. As so often, the great state of Maine, seemingly peripheral, turns out to be central, in this case because of the Gulf that bears its name. Gulf of Maine Council on the Marine Environment (PDF):
[Frequently described as a “sea within a sea”, the Gulf of Maine is] among the most diverse, productive and complex marine temperate areas in the world.… Several political boundaries separate states, provinces and nations in the Gulf of Maine but the natural processes that occur in the region pay no heed to these boundaries. Several species of fish, marine mammals and birds regularly migrate across these political boundaries in their life cycles and the Gulf ’s currents ensure Gulf-wide dispersion of the young of many species. The Gulf of Maine is an important migratory staging area for millions of birds and is a significant summering and wintering region [and not just for humans!].
The Gulf of Maine is also a living laboratory for a gigantic planetary experiment, for which the term “informed consent” seems a wee bit underscoped. The Times-Record of Brunswick writes of changes in the Gulf:
[These changes are] related to global warming, but the exact mechanism is still being debated. Is it atmospheric events, like hurricanes, bringing warm water into the Gulf on a more regular basis? Has the Gulf Stream shifted further west? Has the ocean absorbed all the carbon it can hold from the atmosphere and is responding by warming up? Did Arctic sea ice have a much stronger cooling effect on the Gulf of Maine than previously thought?
The Gulf of Maine is fast becoming a living laboratory for global climate change in a manageable setting, which is a good thing for climate scientists, but a bad thing for the Gulf of Maine and all the creatures that live beneath its waves and on its rocky shores and islands.
So, rather than a definitive theory of everything, this post is one citizen’s effort to try to make sense of the situation. So, to do that, I’ll ask, first, who believes the Gulf of Maine is warming? Only then will I ask, second, why would one believe that the Gulf of Maine is warming? After all, one can come to a conclusion from an accumulation of small data points without completely understanding why the data points have come to be.
Who Believes that the Gulf of Maine is Warming?
There are at least six species or classes of living entities that believe that the Gulf of Maine is warming; at least, were animals capable of belief, we could infer their beliefs from their actions.
Lobsters Believe. As water to the South gets warmer and warmer, it’s easier to catch lobsters up north. The New York Times:
The gulf has been at least two degrees warmer than its historical 50-degree average in each of the last five years. In 2012, it measured four degrees higher, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
Thirty years ago, the best lobstering was in Knox County, the center of Maine’s ragged seacoast. Today, the lobstering powerhouses are places like Stonington, an island town two counties closer to the Canadian border. “We did pretty good lobstering — better than the guys down east,” said Mark Brewer, 43, from Boothbay, in the southern half of the state, referring to his hauls 20 years ago. “Now they control all the lobsters.”
One reason may be that lobsters migrate from deep to shallow waters in the spring when the temperature rises; because the gulf warms earlier than in the past, lobsters spend more time close to shore, where they can be trapped. Scientists also suspect that warming has driven away predators. But warm water is also conducive to a bacterial infection that strikes lobsters’ shells. Shell disease is not a problem now in the gulf, but it lurks. The record warmth in 2012 led to an outbreak off the Maine coast, and the infection has sped the collapse of lobster populations farther south.
Smelt Believe. Smelt are moving North, too. New Hampshire Public Radio:
“The information that we are getting from Maine last year was not promising either, but there seem to be more smelt up there this year than there are in either in New Hampshire or Massachusetts, and that may have a lot to do with the warming waters,” [Fish and Game biologist Becky Heuss] says. “The population seems to be moving northward.”
“You’ve had to go up to Maine to catch any fish if you wanted to smelt fish at all,’ [local fisherman Shawn Casey says.
Blue Crabs Believe. Ditto happy blue crabs, also moving in. Red Orbit:
The historic northern limit of this species of crab (also called Atlantic blue or Chesapeake blue) is Cape Cod, Mass. They typically weren’t found in the Gulf of Maine due to its cold Canadian waters. From 2012 to 2014, however, scientists and resource managers observed blue crabs as far north as northern Maine and Nova Scotia, Canada. Johnson hypothesizes that warmer ocean temperatures in 2012 and 2013, which were 1.3°C higher than the previous decade’s average, allowed the crabs to move north.
(Of course, this one change could be “ephemeral.” So far as I am aware, however, this corellated northward movement of species is without precedent, as is the degree of warming itself.)
Shrimp Believe. But shrimp have a sad. Portland Press-Herald:
Marine scientists see the collapse of local shrimp stocks as part of a global pattern reflecting the impact of rising sea temperatures. “All of a sudden, everything was gone,” [said Anne Richards, a fishery biologist at the Northeast Fisheries Science Center in Woods Hole, Massachusetts]. “It was almost like a vacuum came and sucked up all the shrimp.”
Ice Fisherman Believe. To be fair, this is atmospheric heating. But this too provides a reason to think the Gulf of Maine is warming, since air temperature affects surface ocean temperature. Keep Maine Current:
According to Maine-based scientists, the long-term increase in Maine’s average annual air temperatures since the late 19th century has caused the ice-out date on many of the state’s lakes to occur earlier and earlier in the season, posing threats to the popular sport of ice fishing.
“There is a long-term trend of ice-out happening earlier in the year across many lakes in Maine and many lakes in the northeast,” [said David Hart, a University of Maine biology professor and the director of the George Mitchell Center for Sustainability Solutions]. “This is related to the long-term trends of increasing air temperatures. Even though in any given year there may be wide variations from that trend – and this year is one of them, ice-out is going to be really late this year in many places – the long-term trend is clear.”
Capitalists Believe. Because markets, right? Portland Press-Herald:
Maine’s interest in the Arctic may seem puzzling, considering its location some 1,500 miles south of the Arctic Circle. But the state’s geographic position at the northeast corner of the nation means ships passing through the Arctic reach Maine ports first, said Louie Porta, director of policy for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ Oceans North Canada campaign.
In the private sector, one of the state’s most prominent business leaders, CEO Peter Vigue of the Pittsfield-based construction giant Cianbro Corp., has been building relationships in Iceland and Greenland, where he traveled extensively last year to scout potential projects. … Eastport stands to gain the most if the Northwest Passage route develops because it has the deepest natural harbor on the East Coast, Vigue said. He sees Eastport as the best port for large ships carrying bulk cargo, such as iron ore. He said the cargo can be shipped across the country on rail lines that can be brought into the port on a state-owned right-of-way.
“[A] state-owned right-of-way.” So the invisible business plan for the East-West Corridor finally appears! (See “Maine in the Crosshairs: The Penobscot, the East-West Corridor, and Globalization”).
To be fair, Vigue is acting on artic ice melt, not warming in the Gulf of Maine. But if you melt the ice in your drink, your drink gets warmer, right? And I bet Vigue is swirling his glass, too!
Adding it up. To conclude with Senator Angus King (I):
“People don’t necessarily say, ‘This is an issue of global climate change,’ ” [Senator] King said. “They do say, ‘Boy, things are changing.’ Part of what has to happen is people have to see the two as connected.
Certainly Peter Vigue sees this already, as (I’m guessing) do the lobsters, smelt, blue crabs, shrimp, and maybe even the ice fisherman. King goes on:
“Of course, there’s a difference between weather and climate and I’m not one to say every single snowstorm or hurricane or severe winter is an indication that this is part of a global phenomenon. When you add it up, you can’t really avoid the conclusion that something’s going on out there and it’s having an impact on everything from the Iditarod to catching sea horses in lobster traps on the coast of Maine.”
And “adding it up” is what this section of the post has tried to do. Now let’s look for something that ties all these individual datapoints together.
Why Would One Believe that the Gulf of Maine is Warming?.
Did I forget mention that the Gulf of Maine is complicated? It is. From Maine’s Climate Future: 2015 Update:
The Gulf of Maine is unique for many reasons, one of which is the way the semi-enclosed basin of the Gulf is influenced by dynamic interactions of the ocean and atmosphere. Gulf of Maine temperatures reflect the interplay between colder, fresher water coming from the north; warmer, saltier water entering from the south; and an intense annual cycle of warm air temperatures in summer and cold air in winter. Since 1982, the average sea surface temperature increased at a rate of 0.05 °F (0.03 °C) per year, slightly faster than the increase experienced by the global ocean (Figure 12). While the long-term warming signal is clear, the Gulf of Maine has the potential for significant departures from the overall trend. Since 2004, the rate of warming accelerated to 0.41 °F (0.23 °C) per year, a rate that further analysis has shown to be faster than 99% of the world’s oceans. The warm period in the 1950s shows how variable conditions can be in the Gulf of Maine. The warm temperatures around 1950 occurred during a time when average ocean temperatures were colder than today. Like the 1950s, the recent rapid increase in Gulf of Maine temperatures is the result of a natural cycle of variability, but now it is layered on an accelerating long-term warming trend. Adding this variability on top of the predicted warming shows the potential for extreme temperatures in the future. Changes in Gulf of Maine temperatures are also affected by related changes in atmosphere-ocean circulation.
That’s a lot of variables! So, perhaps it really is best to think of the Gulf of Maine as a laboratory, rather than trying to invent a model. (Can there really be a science of uniqueness?) That said, in the spirit of Maine’s Climate Future, and as an attempt to be a good citizen, and because I think about climate change a lot, because of the fuel bill (too big) and also the growing season (all too short, but lengthening), let me risk the Homeric laughter of actual scientists and try to build a very simple model of my own. Anyhow, on the warming, here’s a handy chart, from an actual scientist based on several models:
(Note that I’m somewhat with skeptics on those sweeping upward curves on the right. Those are all projections! Nevertheless, even when you throw out the scary projections, you’ll notice the steepening slopes of the green line (acceleration after 1982) and the red line (increased acceleration after 2004), and it sure looks like “something’s going on out there,” as Angus King said.)
So let’s start with the currents in the Gulf of Maine. (What follows is a ludicrous oversimplification, because the atmosphere figures also, as we have just seen, as does the configuration of the seabed, which channels the currents, and the temperature at various depths, and the chaotic interplay between currents in this system and those outside it.) That said, here’s a handy chart:
Labrador Current flowing into the Gulf of Maine from the North; Gulf Stream passing by on the East. So, what do we know about each current?
Labrador Current. Well, we know that the Arctic ice cap is melting. Here’s a lovely anecdote from Harper’s (again, buy the print edition). “Rotten Ice”:
I first went to Greenland in 1993 to get above tree line. … A chance meeting with a couple from west Greenland drew me north for a summer and part of the next dark winter. When I returned the following spring, the ice had failed to come in. I had planned to travel up the west coast by dogsled on the route that Knud Rasmussen took during his 1916–18 expedition. I didn’t know then that such a trip was no longer possible, that the ice on which Arctic people and animals had relied for thousands of years would soon be nearly gone.
For those who want more than “anecdote,” the National Snow and Ice Data Center:
On February 25, 2015, Arctic sea ice extent appeared to have reached its annual maximum extent, marking the beginning of the sea ice melt season. This year’s maximum extent not only occurred early; it is also the lowest in the satellite record.
The Bangor Daily News concludes (pro-port pom-pom waving deleted):
Arctic summer sea ice extent and thickness have decreased markedly in recent years. … All indications are that Arctic summer sea ice will continue to decrease over coming years.
So, again: As the ice in your drink melts, your drink gets warmer. And so, I’m guessing, with the Labrador current, which comes from the melting Arctic ice cap.
Gulf Stream. As it turns out, the melting ice cap is also causing the Gulf Stream to slow down. 27East (“Your Connection to the Hamptons”). This is complicated, too:
A study recently published in the scientific journal Nature [here] notes that the East Coast of the United States, from the New York Bight northward, saw a leap in sea levels of nearly 4 inches in just two years, in 2009 and 2010, while the standard observed average sea level rise worldwide has been only about 1 inch every 10 years. To the north, in Maine, the jump was closer to 5 inches over the same span.
The cause, the study notes, was not a more rapid localized version of global warming, but rather a dramatic change in the rate of the ocean current known as the Gulf Stream, which flows past the Northeast about 200 miles off the coast of Long Island..
The average speed at which the Gulf Stream is flowing northward off the Eastern Seaboard slowed by nearly 30 percent in the same period in which tide gauges along the coastline recorded the spike in sea levels. … “As currents speed up or slow down, the sea water going across the currents actually tilts … so it’s higher on one side than on the other,” Dr. Bokuniewicz explained. “Coriolis force pushes the Gulf Stream to the right, so the pressure on the right side is greater than on the left. That pushes it up on one side and down on the other..
“So if the Gulf Stream slows down, and is pushing less hard on the right side, the sea level goes up along the coast,” he continued.
Which to my simple mind, means that warmer Gulf Stream water is heading west toward the Atlantic Coast.
Q.E.D. So, warmer Labrador Current + warmer Gulf Stream = warmer Gulf of Maine. Q.E.D.
Readers, I know that global wa— er, climate ch– er, global weirding is contentious, and the mighty juggernaut that is Naked Capitalism always ends up with some trolls splattered on its windshield.
So I would appeal to you to focus your comments on method, rather than policy-impyling outcome. As in part 1: Are you seeing signs of global weirding in your locale, like other creatures heading north? Or as in part 2… Where all I can really say is: Are there any oceanographers in the house?
Oh, and it gives me the creeps that Peter Vigue and the squillionaires he’s fronting for see global weirding as a business opportunity, and as a chance to jam a railroad — and no doubt plenty of train bombs — through the Penobscot watershed that is Maine’s heart. Not in
my our back yard!
 I forgot puffins and scallops. Sorry.
 NOAA has a bigger and better diagram of the entire “NES LME” (Northeast U.S. Continental Shelf Large Marine Ecosystem) which goes all the way down past New Jersey, here. And then there’s this, which I’m leaving out of the main body of the post to keep it simple:
Apparently the annual influx of cold Labrador Current water into the Gulf of Maine is fickle. It is very difficult to observe because the saltier cold ocean water flows in beneath the warmer fresher outgoing water. Scientists refer to this changing phenomenon as “barn door open,” “barn door closed” and “barn door ajar.” The recent year when lobsters molted 2-3 weeks early was a “barn door closed” year. There was little cooling in the Gulf of Maine by the Labrador Current. Scientists have yet to find a pattern in the annual sequencing of barn door open, closed or ajar. It is as chaotic as mapping the cooling rates of liquid coffee portions within a cup. You know the surface will cool first but how that cooler water sinks into and exchanges heat with the rest of the fluids is random.
 “Atmospheric events” could play a role, too.
NOTE I’m saying “global weirding” as opposed to the anodyne and defensive “climate change,” and also as opposed to “global warming,” since given our this last very weird winter, it’s clear that everybody isn’t getting warmer all of the time.
As the map of the extremely weird February 2015 shows, the nation with the greatest power to stabilize runaway climate change, the United States, is also, at least this year, the subset of humanity — helpfully marked as “The Zone of Irony” — least likely to experience and perceive, and therefore most enabled to deny, the realities of an average increase in temperature, worldwide. It’s almost as if Gaia, or whatever Being takes care of the planet, has clamped blue fingers over humanity’s eyes, the better to frogmarch us, unresisting, over a cliff into a flaming pit of extinction. Just saying.