Keeping pace with marine heatwaves


Marine heatwaves (MHWs) are prolonged extreme oceanic warm water events. They can have devastating impacts on marine ecosystems — for example, causing mass coral bleaching and substantial declines in kelp forests and seagrass meadows — with implications for the provision of ecological goods and services. Effective adaptation and mitigation efforts by marine managers can benefit from improved MHW predictions, which at present are inadequate. In this Perspective, we explore MHW predictability on short-term, interannual to decadal, and centennial timescales, focusing on the physical processes that offer prediction. While there may be potential predictability of MHWs days to years in advance, accuracy will vary dramatically depending on the regions and drivers. Skilful MHW prediction has the potential to provide critical information and guidance for marine conservation, fisheries and aquaculture management. However, to develop effective prediction systems, better understanding is needed of the physical drivers, subsurface MHWs, and predictability limits.

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Fig. 1: Drivers and ecological impacts of major marine heatwave events.
Fig. 2: Trends in global marine heatwave occurrence.
Fig. 3: Marine heatwave drivers and impacts.
Fig. 4: Integrated approaches for monitoring marine heatwaves.
Fig. 5: Marine heatwave potential predictability and forecast timescales.


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N.J.H. acknowledges support from the Australian Research Council (ARC) Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes (grant CE170100023) and the Australian Government National Environmental Science Program (NESP) Earth Systems and Climate Change (ESCC) Hub (Project 5.8). D.A.S. was supported by the UK Research and Innovation (UKRI) Future Leaders Fellowships scheme (MR/S032827/1). T.W. also acknowledges support from the ARC for marine heatwave work (DP170100023). J.A.B. was supported through the NESP Tropical Water Quality (TWQ) Hub (Project 4.2). Sea-surface-temperature retrievals in Fig. 4 were produced by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology as a contribution to the Integrated Marine Observing System (IMOS), an initiative of the Australian Government being conducted as part of the National Collaborative Research Infrastructure Strategy (NCRIS) and the Super Science Initiative. The imagery data were acquired from the National Polar-orbiting Operational Environmental Satellite System Preparatory Project (NPP) satellite by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and from the NOAA spacecraft by the Bureau of Meteorology, Australian Institute of Marine Science, Australian Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, Geoscience Australia and Western Australian Satellite Technology and Applications Consortium. Australia’s IMOS is enabled by the NCRIS. It is operated by a consortium of institutions as an unincorporated joint venture, with the University of Tasmania as Lead Agent.

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N.J.H. led the overall conceptual design, led the activity and coordinated the writing. A.S.G. generated Figs 1, 3 and 5. E.C.J.O. generated Fig. 2. J.A.B. generated Fig. 4. A.J.H. led the conceptual design for Box 2 and Table 1. All authors discussed the concepts presented and contributed to the writing.

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Correspondence to Neil J. Holbrook.

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Nature Reviews Earth & Environment thanks Jennifer Jackson and the other, anonymous, reviewer(s) for their contribution to the peer review of this work.

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Holbrook, N.J., Sen Gupta, A., Oliver, E.C.J. et al. Keeping pace with marine heatwaves. Nat Rev Earth Environ 1, 482–493 (2020).

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