Since 1916, the Scripps Institution of Oceanography has measured the temperature of the Pacific Ocean in San Diego to understand how human activity might impact the environment. On August 3, Scripps measured an all-time high temperature of 78.8 degrees, which could lead to problems like toxic algae blooms—putting at risk all types of marine life and the fishing industry. The New York Times interviewed Clarissa Anderson, a scientist at Scripps, to take a closer look at the meaning and possible consequences of the warming waters:

How often is the water temperature measured and why?

We’ve done manual measurements on the waters near the pier since 1916, but we also have an automatic shore station and gliders that go further off the coast and buoys. All of those measurements tell us a comprehensive story about what’s going on in the ocean as a whole. And we’re seeing these high temperatures across the board.

While global warming was not an understood concept a century ago, even then there was an understanding that there’s natural variability and that temperatures could change very abruptly. The understanding was you’ve got to get a baseline understanding. There was a basic understanding that human causes could impact the sea and this was scientific curiosity taking that further.

What does ocean temperature tell you?

Temperature is an incredibly important driver. Not only is it a fundamental property but we know it has a lot of impact on things that are always living in this dynamic system. We’re really pushing against the edges of that variability. We had the blob and then we had El Niño of 2016 and we never really came back down from that. This can signal a tipping point of the environment that we need to be prepared for and we need to be looking at right now.

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