If we want to stop the Climate Crisis, we need to look towards our oceans
Tiffany Duong, Investable Oceans
Every year, Climate Week presents the world with an opportunity to come together to discuss the ongoing climate crisis and, more importantly, what we’re willing to do about it. Although the week was packed with important and thought-provoking presentations, as we reflect on the balance of events, less than 5% were dedicated to oceans. We invite you to add oceans to the mix and consider the role they must play as a critical pillar of the climate solutions we must implement in our near future.
Often, the distinct camps of “climate” and “ocean” scientists, artists, advocates, and enthusiasts do not meet. Their work is compartmentalized - too rarely acknowledging their interreliance. But, when we look at images like the classic “Blue Marble” shot of Earth from 1972, taken by the crew of the Apollo 17 spacecraft on its way to the Moon, we see that there is only one realm, one planet. From that distance, it is clear that everything is connected ‒ the air, the water, and the human lives that they sustain. We can only effectively tackle the complex and critical problems of our planet by integrating our climate efforts with urgent strategies to protect our oceans
The 2019 IPCC Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate was one of the first instances in which the oceans, the cryosphere (the frozen components of the earth’s system, like the ice caps and glaciers), and the climate were tied together scientifically and via an international policy framework. The Report’s takeaway was that all three are interconnected in the global exchange of water, energy, and carbon, and “the projected responses of the ocean and cryosphere to...ongoing global warming include climate feedbacks, changes over decades to millennia that cannot be avoided, thresholds of abrupt change, and irreversibility.”
As we explore these connections more deeply, we can start with the data that increased greenhouse gases in the atmosphere have caused temperatures to rise. The additional carbon and heat have jointly wreaked havoc on the planet's ecosystems. Ancient forests are burning, hurricanes are stronger and more devastating, islands are sinking, and billions of animals and humans have nowhere to go and no way to live.
So, let’s talk about heat and ocean warming. According to NASA scientists, the average global temperature on Earth has increased by more than 1° Celsius (2° Fahrenheit) since 1880. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but all of the destruction, habitat loss, and disrupted global systems from which we are currently suffering have occurred in correlation with that one degree of warming.
Two-thirds of this warming has occurred since just 1975. NOAA reported that more than 90% of the warming over the past 50 years has been absorbed by our oceans. Because the water covers more than 70% of our planet’s surface, its surface area has taken in the atmosphere’s excess heat ‒ but it cannot do so indefinitely or without consequence. The ocean loses its ability to serve as a stabilizer of the Earth’s temperature and climate system as its waters warm. We’re already seeing ocean currents stall and even reverse as warm waters disrupt and destroy ancient global systems.
The excess carbon being absorbed into the oceans also explains the phenomenon of ocean acidification. NOAA called the oceans “the only long-term sink for carbon dioxide emissions from human activities.” They’ve absorbed 40% of our manmade carbon dioxide, and it reacts with seawater to create carbonic acid, which makes the oceans more acidic. The acidic water eats away at coral reefs, shellfish, and phytoplankton, which make up the very base of the food chain. Our activities that increase fossil fuel emissions, then, eventually come back to haunt us by way of our food.
Exploring more direct impacts of humans on our climate and oceans brings us to deoxygenation. The IUCN calls ocean deoxygenation “one of the most pernicious, yet under-reported side-effects of human-induced climate change.” Nutrient runoff from land and sewage pollution and nitrogen from the burning of fossil fuels pull oxygen out of the water, essentially suffocating marine life in the waters they live in. Low oxygen “dead zones” are increasing, and threatening food security and livelihoods around the world.
In our daily activities, too, humans are impacting the oceans negatively through destructive human activities like overfishing, habitat destruction, and unsustainable tourism. These practices exacerbate the climate-related issues the oceans are facing to push them past their tipping point.
Professor J Murray Roberts of the Head Changing Oceans Research Group perhaps said it best:
“Our shared ocean is being ravaged by four horseman of the apocalypse. The impacts of ocean warming, acidification, deoxygenation and destructive human activities are combining in complex ways that are degrading marine ecosystems at rates never seen in Earth’s history. We must act fast to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make all human uses of the seas sustainable.”
We must remember, as the oceans degrade further, they no longer will be able to carry out critical ecosystem functions to regulate the global climate and temperature. But, if we can work together to leverage the connectivity of these systems, to innovate, fund, research, and develop new ways to help restore the oceans and the climate together, we can begin to build a better future than the one before us.
We thank you for this chance to share what motivates us every day, and we hope you will join us in catalyzing a new blue world.
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