Even the deepest, coldest parts of the ocean are getting warmer

 It’s not yet clear if a small increase in temperature is the result of climate change


Even the nearly freezing waters at the bottom of the ocean are warming, according to deep-sea thermometers located just above the seafloor in the Atlantic Ocean.

Doug White

Things are heating up at the seafloor.

Thermometers moored at the bottom of the Atlantic Ocean recorded an average temperature increase of about 0.02 degrees Celsius over the last decade, researchers report in the Sept. 28 Geophysical Research Letters. That warming may be a consequence of human-driven climate change, which has boosted ocean temperatures near the surface (SN: 9/25/19), but it’s unclear since so little is known about the deepest, darkest parts of the ocean.

“The deep ocean, below about 2,000 meters, is not very well observed,” says Chris Meinen, an oceanographer at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in Miami. The deep sea is so hard to reach that the temperature at any given research site is typically taken only once per decade. But Meinen’s team measured temperatures hourly from 2009 to 2019 using seafloor sensors at four spots in the Argentine Basin, off the coast of Uruguay.

Temperature records for the two deepest spots revealed a clear trend of warming over that decade. Waters 4,540 meters below the surface warmed from an average 0.209° C to 0.234° C, while waters 4,757 meters down went from about 0.232°C to 0.248°C. This warming is much weaker than in the upper ocean, Meinen says, but he also notes that since warm water rises, it would take a lot of heat to generate even this little bit of warming so deep.

It’s too soon to judge whether human activity or natural variation is the cause, Meinen says. Continuing to monitor these sites and comparing the records with data from devices in other ocean basins may help to clarify matters.

Previously the staff writer for physical sciences at Science News, Maria Temming is the assistant managing editor at Science News Explores. She has bachelor's degrees in physics and English, and a master's in science writing.

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