As part of one of the organisations I work with I run an environmental youth forum, called Our World, which encourages young people to get talking about environmental issues. The group meetings are low key, informal, and designed to be a safe space where you can share you thoughts, knowledge, hopes, fears, or lack of knowledge about environmental issues, without having to worry what anyone thinks. We’re all there to learn more, because we all care about what’s going around us. And I saw we because I’m certainly not the font of all wisdom in this case, I’m on just as much of a journey of discovery as the rest of the group!
I ran a session the other day where we started thinking about designing our own interactive Climate Change workshop that we could take out into our community and use to not just teach people about Climate Change, but to help them change their behaviours and attitudes. And while we were gathering our thoughts and thinking about what we’d be looking at and focusing on, I was asked if the Oceans are affected by Climate Change.
Now, of course they are, but as I struggled to explain how and why I realised that I didn’t really know much about it at all. I know a lot about the impact of plastic pollution on the oceans, but my knowledge bank falls a bit short when it comes to our changing climate, and its impact on our seas.
So what does Climate Change really mean for our oceans?
Well, after having done a pretty large amount of research, the answer to that question, is quite a lot. And scientists have already been seeing the first of those effects for quite a little while now. There’s also a whole heap of data and reports available on this, so if you’re interested then don’t stop here, use this as a spring-board and go have a look yourself.
So lets start at the beginning.
Climate change itself simply means a change in global or regional climate patterns. But in the sense in which we commonly talk about it, it means the rising temperature of the planet, due largely to the impact of greenhouse gasses released by our actions as a species.
Now if the temperature of the planet is rising, and bearing in mind that our planet is 70% ocean, that also means that the temperature of the oceans is rising, and that’s not good.
One of the easiest, and sadly most common, impacts of climate change that you can see is Coral Bleaching. This happens when coral comes under stress from a change in it’s environment. As a reaction to this stress the coral and the algae that lives in it’s cells, and feeds, protects and colours the coral, detach from one another. The relationship between the coral and the algae is essential, and with the algae gone the coral loses it’s largest food source, becomes more susceptible to disease, and loses it’s colour – hence the term ‘coral bleaching’.
Not all coral dies from bleaching, but many many do, and this in turn leads to a loss of biodiversity and habitat for the sea creatures that live and depend on them. It also has adverse impacts on us as many coral reefs are a huge draw, bringing thousands of tourists to various parts of the world each year. Coral also has a role to play in protecting coastlines from flooding during extreme weather conditions, without it, we’re more susceptible too.
There’s loads of information on coral bleaching, but you can find one article I thought was particularly moving here.
Warmer ocean temperatures aren’t just bad for coral though, they also have a huge impact on the rest of the creatures that live their lives beneath the waves, and this can be seen through changes in habits and patterns.
Many fish and sea creatures rely on temperature to tell them when to migrate, when to start seeking a mate, or when to spawn. Rising temperatures disrupt their senses and patterns, and can also impact their development, including the age at which they become sexually mature, and their growth. There’s also the matter of food; many ocean ecosystems rely on the upwelling of nutrients from much deeper parts of the ocean, caused by ocean currents reactive to temperature. Warmer waters mean decreased upwelling, and what does that mean for the ecosystems that depend on those vital nutrients? Put this all together and what you have is a huge threat to many species survival.
Add to this that it has already been noted that many species are permanently relocating due to their need to live in colder waters, and you can begin to see the bigger picture.
The next impact of our changing climate on our oceans is one that you’ve doubtless heard about countless times, but one that is no less important for that. Melting polar ice.
As you would expect, it’s the rise in the earths temperature due to greenhouse gasses that is causing the polar ice caps to melt. But other than the fact it’s changed from a solid to a liquid, what does that actually mean?
To put it bluntly, it’s really bad news for a lot of animals, birds, and sea creatures.
Most of the polar food chains are almost entirely dependent, either directly or indirectly, on the little algae right at the bottom of that chain, algae that can only be produced in conditions where there is sea ice. Without sea ice the algae can’t survive, the creatures that eat the algae can no longer survive, the creatures that would of eaten the algae eating creatures can no longer survive, and on it goes. Bad news all round.
The loss of sea ice also means a huge loss in habitat for many polar creatures, including the polar bears, penguins, seals, walruses, whales, and more that we all love watching on the telly. With their homes rapidly disappearing and their food sources running low, how are they meant to survive?
One of the species most affected by this loss in habitat is the Arctic krill, whose decline has been observed in recent years, and poses even more of a difficulty to those sea birds, arctic mammals, and sea creatures that depend on them to survive.
Another impact you’ll have heard lots about is rising sea levels. Can it really be that bad? We’ve all heard the phrase bandied around, but what’s the real problem with rising sea levels?
The answer is a huge loss of habitat, and not just for sea creatures this time, but for us as well. Islands in the Pacific ocean, and many coastal towns, villages and cities across the world, are immediately threatened, at least 10% of our population. What happens when the sea level rises enough for it to become a real problem? As a species we will be faced with an influx of refugees, this time not from war but from the very environment we, and so many other creatures, depend on?
This is also a problem for many other creatures. Many species of sea turtle, for example, depend upon beaches in order to nest and reproduce, rising sea levels will mean a reduction in beaches and creatures such as sea turtles could lose their nesting grounds.
Coral reefs, mangroves, and many different types of sea grasses also rely on shallow waters to make their homes. Species that are slow growing are unlikely to be able to keep up with the rising water levels and are amongst the most threatened. These species make up some of the fabulous habitats and ecosystems that exist beneath the waters, and their reduction will have a knock-on effect.
We’ve all watched films like The Day After Tomorrow. These films are based on a scientific projection of what could happen if/when the oceans water currents are altered, something that is already beginning to happen as a result of climate change.
The currents in our ocean play a huge part in regulating the temperature and weather of our planet. The huge amounts of cold or warm water carried into or out of certain regions by underwater ocean currents, probably the most famous of which is the Gulf stream, are hugely influential on that region. Now imagine that those currents change, or are cut off completely in places. What you’d be left with is crazy, unpredictable weather in all corners of the world, with temperatures dropping and rising in places they wouldn’t usually, and living conditions becoming hazardous, more likely down right dangerous, for societies unused and unprepared for extreme weather conditions.
Changes to the oceans currents are already causing problems for sea creatures, as some are drawn off their migratory course, the dispersal of their larvae is altered, or food and nutrients usually brought to them via the current are no longer available.
The last impact I’m going to outline in this article is ocean acidification, which, put bluntly, means that the oceans are getting more and more acidic. This is due to the burning of the fossil fuels that are releasing those same greenhouse gasses that are responsible for so much climate change, altering the chemical composition of the seawater, causing it to be more acidic.
It’s not too hard to guess why this isn’t such a great thing, we all know acid isn’t very good for any of us, but what does this actually mean?
In short, it causes direct damage to any sea creature that has a shell made of calcium, including many plant forms and corals. Shellfish, corals, and plant life make up a huge portion of ocean life, and without such an important part of the food chain many other creatures would not be able to survive. For us that could mean the disappearance of one of our main sources of food, but it could also mean the end of a vibrant and beautiful world below the waves.
At the beginning of this article I asked what does Climate Change mean for our Oceans? The answer is a lot, and none of it good news.
But it’s not all doom and gloom, because all this has only just started happening, and if we all put our heads together and start thinking and acting smarter, then this can be avoided. But we need to work together, and we need to work smarter.
There are practical solutions and there are everyday things we can do to help reduce our impact on the world around us. We just need to find out about them, we need to publicise them, and we need to do them. So that we, and all the other creatures we share this beautiful planet with, can continue to live here, and enjoy all the wondrous parts of the world, together.