I did not know my grandfathers very well. They both were born in the 1880s and died in the early 1960s when I was 8 or 9 years old. My grandmothers died shortly before and after I was born.

Those were different times. My mother’s father, Grandpa Baker, lived in the house he and his sons had built around 1920 on Avalon Road in Portland. My mother, Connie, grew up there, born the youngest of 11 children in 1925. Grandpa was a jack of all trades from the Boothbay area, where his (our) family arrived in the 1760s. He had farmed in Vermont for a while before returning to Maine where he and a couple of my uncles started a repair business called Portland Glass Co. He was a heavy-set, gruff old guy with a cane, that is practically all I remember of him.

Except for one thing.

One day when he was sitting in a chair with his two hands resting on the cane, I heard him say in his scratchy, growly, old-man voice, “Man will never walk on the moon. It’s impossible.”

This was around the time President John F. Kennedy called for an all-out effort to land men (men) on the moon. Which, you may recall, succeeded.

I was remembering Grandpa Baker’s pronouncement last week when I read that between the beginning of March and the end of April this year, the average ocean sea surface temperature over the whole Earth rose by .36 degrees Fahrenheit. That is an incredible increase to take place in what amounts to a tiny fraction of a geologic second.


The oceanographers are not sure what to make of it. They’ve known for decades that the ocean is warming and expanding as it sucks up most of the heat generated through the greenhouse effect, which for the last roughly 250 years has been stoked by humans burning oil and coal and sending enormous amounts of carbon into the atmosphere. These are known facts.

Climate scientists have also known for 10 years or more that the warming caused by the greenhouse gas emissions is happening more quickly than the models of the 1990s and 2000s predicted. But this thing about the ocean temperature rising one-third of a degree in less than two months has taken them by surprise.

Average global sea surface temperatures, 1981-2023. The heavy black line shows temperatures for 2023. Graphic courtesy of Climate Change Institute, University of Maine

They think it could be an unusually strong precursor of El Niño, which is a warming of the Pacific Ocean off South America that happens roughly every two to seven years. El Niño flows warm air and moisture all around, causing disruptions in global weather patterns, including making warmer winters. El Niño events are becoming more frequent and intense because of climate change. Maine’s unusually warm winter of 2016 was spurred by El Niño.

Ocean warming due to climate change is already destroying beaches and coastlines and disrupting fisheries, including Maine’s lobster fishery. Is the ocean expanding even more quickly than anybody who knows what’s going on suspects?

These unsettling facts about rising temperatures reminded me of an email I received awhile back in response to another Backyard Naturalist climate report. “Climate change is natural. Mankind CANNOT kill the planet,” the writer growled, amid adolescent insults. Those sentences echoed right down the same time and syntax tunnel with Grandpa Baker’s pronouncement about the unreachable moon.

No one is left from the 19th century now, but as the email writer’s words demonstrate, their beliefs are. Some of those beliefs, involving Earth science, are no longer true. Mankind can kill the planet, has been doing so, and can step back from it. Other beliefs, involving ancient perennial values, are clearer than ever. Hopefully there will be a woman on the moon in the next few years.

Meanwhile, tides and temperatures are rising.

Dana Wilde lives in Troy. You can contact him at dwilde.naturalist@gmail.com. His book “Summer to Fall” is available from North Country Press. Backyard Naturalist appears the second and fourth Thursdays each month.

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