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Scientists Mark 100 Years Of Recording Ocean Temp At Scripps Pier

Video by Nicholas Mcvicker

San Diego researchers have been taking ocean temperatures at the end of Scripps Pier for a century, and the data have a story to tell.

San Diego oceanographers are celebrating an anniversary Monday that was 100 years in the making.

Scientists began recording ocean temperatures at the end of the Scripps Pier in La Jolla in August 1916.

The iconic Scripps pier has jutted out over the ocean, in one form or another, for more than 100 years. And for nearly every day during that century, someone has taken the time walk to the end of the pier, enter a small research hut, drop a bucket through a hatch and collect a sample of the ocean.

Kristi Seech of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography is adding to the ocean temperature project's daily scientific record. She puts a container on a cord and starts lowering it with a winch.

"Looks like we're pretty good, so now we're going to pull it back up," Seech said.

"This is just a general information gathering tool. Where we're going to pull up the water and we're going to take the temperature. We're going to use it to look at the community composition later on and measure salinity," Seech said.

That simple act of putting a thermometer in the water and keeping track of the results has created a valuable research database.

John McGowan's academic career has been linked to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography since the 1950s. He points to a chart that is a visual record of all those temperature readings.

"Each one of these is a surface temperature measurement and that's one year. It is warm in the summer and cold in the winter and so these are measurements of sea surface temperature for 100 years," McGowan said.

Researchers didn't have sophisticated technology when they started taking temperatures in the early days of the century, but they decided not to change what they were doing even though new high-tech equipment could allow them to automate this work.

This data set's value is rooted in the fact that it has been done the same way for so long.

"Time series are important because it's really the only way to measure change. Change as compared to what, they say. Well, it has to be compared to a baseline," McGowan said. "And the longer and more detailed the baseline, the more accurate our estimate is of change."

That ocean temperature record shows change.

Photo caption: A panorama of the Scripps Pier in 1927, top, and in 2016.

Photo by Scripps Institution of Oceanography / UC San Diego

A panorama of the Scripps Pier in 1927, top, and in 2016.

McGowan zeros in on the 1970s when the average temperatures measured at the pier began to rise. That's not just the summer temperatures, but the yearly averages.

"And everything along here is above the long-term average," McGowan. "So the warming, for us, started right about here in the late ’70s and stayed warm all that period of time."

McGowan concedes that this record only tells a local story. But he says similar measurements along the California coast find the same thing.

And when this record is included with all the other sophisticated electronic temperature taking that's done with ships, buoys and satellites, the composite gives a pretty clear picture of how the planet is changing. Documenting the change is the key to understanding it.

Ryan Schafer works at the Birch Aquarium just up the hill. His team is responsible for making sure many of these daily measurements get taken. Whether it's on a weekday, a weekend, or even a holiday.

"There is a lot of pressure. It's 100 years worth of research and so I don't want to be the one to mess up a day or two," Schafer said.

Here, he's using a bottle to collect samples and record the temperature from the surface and floor of the ocean under the pier.

Scientists Mark 100 Years Of Recording Temperature At Scripps Pier


Melissa Carter, researcher, Scripps Institution of Oceanography


"It's kind of nice being a part of that research, not only coming down here and taking the temperatures for them, but also translating that and relaying it to the public that comes to the aquarium," Schafer said.

And that, in essence, is what science is about. Observe, record and report.

Scientists are hopeful that the temperature testing will go on for another 100 years.

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