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How Climate Change Means More Pirates

April 30, 2023

Sea Surface Temperatures Hit Uncharted Territory, Worrying Scientists

Since about the middle of March, the world’s average sea surface temperature has been warmer than ever in modern history—rising faster than climate forecasts and alarming scientists. The finding is not a good sign for marine life and human health. 

Daily sea surface temperature

According to the University of Maine’s Climate Reanalyzer, sea surface temperatures are about 1.5 degrees Fahrenheit warmer than they were in the early 1980s, when satellite data became available. The explanation for this rapid heating is not yet clear and may be due to the ending of La Niña conditions that had cooled the Pacific Ocean by acting like an air conditioner. Also, it’s possible that an El Niño warming pattern is beginning. The Washington Post reports that in the past, El Niño conditions have accelerated global warming. During the most recent major El Niño, in 2016, there was heavier precipitation in the southern U.S. and severe drought in Indonesia and southern Africa.

Because oceans absorb heat from the burning of fossil fuels, it’s certain climate change is adding to the increase in sea surface temperatures. Warmer oceans can cause extreme weather, kill marine life that cannot adapt, and melt polar ice caps faster. Also, because hotter water takes up more space, sea levels rise.

Scientists are not certain whether the increased ocean temperatures will be short-lived or might be the beginning of a more serious situation. Ben Webber of the University of East Anglia told the Guardian that what we are seeing is very unusual and could be taking us into uncharted territory.

Foggy Forecast for Ships Using Arctic Routes

As sea ice shrinks in the Arctic Ocean, shipping routes have opened, making it possible for non-icebreaking vessels to make cheaper and faster journeys instead of going through the Panama or Suez Canals.

Map of the Arctic region showing shipping routes Northeast Passage, Northern Sea Route, and Northwest Passage, and bathymetry | Credit: Arctic Council

However, that could change. A new study from the Ocean University of China shows that it’s becoming a lot foggier along Arctic routes as global warming leads to more ice disappearing. When ice melts, cold air is exposed to warm water, resulting in fog. The fog hides ice that could damage ships, so they slow down, which can add up to three days for vessels taking the Northwest Passage through the U.S. and Canada to avoid the longer Panama Canal.

There are two routes for ships through the Arctic Ocean, according to the National Ocean Economics Program. One, called the Northern Sea Route, passes through Russian waters and the Barents Sea. The other is the Northwest Passage through Canadian and U.S. waters. With the melting sea ice, the routes can remain open longer. The study said there is more fog on the Northwest Passage.

Meanwhile, shipping through the Panama Canal has been reduced because of drought. Authorities have had to lessen the permitted draft of ships because of low water levels. Two artificial lakes that feed the canal with fresh water to move vessels through the locks have suffered from a lack of rain.

Of course, Panamanians have suffered from drought, too. The canal basin supplies about two million people with water, and shortages have led to protests. According to the UN, large areas of Central America, including Panama, have suffered prolonged drought, leaving millions facing food insecurity and leading to migrations.

The Arctic Ocean fog study was published in the journal Geophysical Research Letters.

Sudan Conflict Threatens Supply of This Vital Resource

A deadly conflict in Sudan that started in mid-April as a power struggle between two generals shows no signs of slowing down. Fierce clashes in the capital Khartoum have created a humanitarian crisis, where residents trapped in their homes rely on tenuous cease-fires to access food, water, and medicine. Those who can flee, do.

Acacia Senegal

The generals, who once worked together following a popular uprising to overthrow longtime dictator Omar al-Bashir, are now fighting each other to control the country’s many resources. One of those valuable resources is gum arabic, and it’s why the conflict could bubble up in soft drinks. Gum arabic is irreplaceable in making beverages like Coke and Pepsi and hard to substitute in numerous other products from cosmetics and paint to adhesives and pharmaceuticals.

Seventy percent of the world’s supply of gum arabic comes from Sudan, where globs of the resin are tapped from acacia trees (Acacia senegal). Given Sudan’s history of ethnic warfare, Reuters reports that companies typically keep a three- to six-month stockpile, but because the current violence has been in and around the capital, trade has come to a halt. writes that gum arabic is so vital to the global economy that the U.S. granted it a special exemption from the trade embargo imposed during the three-decade rule of Omar al-Bashir.

The acacia that produce gum arabic have been identified as crucial in helping Sudan combat climate change because the trees are drought resistant, revitalize soil, prevent desertification, and can support livelihoods. However, fewer and fewer people want to endure hours in extreme heat to harvest the resin, as temperatures in Sudan have increased by one degree Celsius in less than three decades—more than double the global average, according to the USGS.

Warmer Waters Force Fishers into Piracy

Pirates of yore were imagined to be one-eyed, peg-legged ruffians with parrots on their shoulders who plundered defenseless ships for loot. But modern pirates—and they do exist—aren’t swashbucklers with a cutlass and sextant. They’re armed with AK-47s and GPS devices.

Royal Navy troops intercept two suspicious skiffs during anti-piracy operation in the Gulf of Aden near Somalia. A UMD study shows that rising ocean temperatures and falling fish populations in the area causes more crime at sea. | Credit: Alex Cave/Royal Navy Archive

Who are these seafaring bandits? According to a new study, some are desperate fishermen reacting to depleted fish stocks as ocean temperatures rise with climate change. Researchers from the University of Maryland looked at 15 years of sea surface temperature data and piracy attacks. They found that in East Africa, where fish populations had dropped and economic opportunities shrank, crimes at sea increased. Conversely, in the South China Sea, where some commercial fish species have thrived in the warmer waters, families in the fishing industry did better and were less likely to engage in unlawful behavior.

Scientists have already correlated rising temperatures with increases in violent crime. This study is just more evidence that climate change may force some to decide—desperate times call for desperate measures.

The study was published in the American Meteorological Society's journal Weather, Climate, and Society.

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