Climate change hits home

A statistic recently approved by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) says that the Gulf of Maine is warming faster than 99 percent of the world’s oceans. Scientists calculated this figure based on satellite data.

The Gulf of Maine encompasses inshore and offshore waters from Cape Cod, Massachusetts to southern Nova Scotia and includes some of the most productive commercial fisheries in the world. Shallow areas like Georges Bank surround the Gulf of Maine, physically distinguishing this area from the rest of the Northwest Atlantic.

According to a 2009 assessment of the State’s climate future by the University of Maine, the Gulf’s unique geographic location may contribute to its vulnerability with respect to climate change. Temperature, salinity and nutrient availability in the Gulf of Maine largely depend on the source of the currents flowing into the area from other places. Climate change is expected to cause increased precipitation and melting in the Arctic, creating an influx of fresher water from the north that has interrupted ecological dynamics in the Gulf in the past.

Long-term data collection has helped scientists track local changes in the Gulf of Maine over time. For example, temperature data have been collected for 100 years in Boothbay Harbor. According to these records, the temperature of the surface water has increased approximately two degrees Fahrenheit since 1970.

Increasing ocean temperatures also contribute to sea level rise. As the water warms, it also expands. According to historical tide gauge data, the local sea level in Portland has risen eight inches since 1912.

While the iconic rocky coasts of Maine may make the state appear less vulnerable to erosion and flooding, at least one scientist has noticed the effects of sea level rise in a different context. Diane Cowan, founder and executive director of the Lobster Conservancy, has studied lobsters on Friendship Long Island for twenty years. Today the site is now frequently inaccessible because the water is too high.

Going forward, the species we have come to know as valuable staples such as lobster, herring and shrimp may be at risk due to the effects of climate change in the Gulf of Maine.

Having been branded the “poster child” for climate change, the Gulf of Maine will likely garner more attention from scientists and citizens looking to understand and predict possible effects of climate change in the years to come.

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