Oceans Becoming Hot, Sour and Breathless

Oceans home to 80% of all life — plankton provide 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe

By Stephen Leahy

DURBAN, South Africa, Dec 3 (IPS)

The world’s oceans are becoming hot, sour and breathless – threatening a vital source of food for a billion people mainly in the developing world experts warned today at a special Oceans Day event at the UN climate negotiation.

Oceans are home 80 percent of all life on the planet and emissions from fossil fuels are turning them increasingly acidic, raising water temperatures and reducing the amount of oxygen in some regions said oceanographer Carol Turley from Plymouth Marine Laboratory in the UK.

“We don’t know what all the consequences will be. We suspect the combination of all three will be far worse than one alone,” Turley told IPS in an interview on the sidelines of climate treaty negotiations known as COP 17.

It was only a few years ago that researchers realised that human emissions of carbon dioxide (CO2) was making the surface waters of oceans more acidic. The oceans naturally absorb CO2 from the atmosphere and have now absorbed about a third of all human emissions. That has kept the climate from warming faster but the additional carbon is altering the oceans’ chemistry making them 30 percent more acidic.

One documented impact is that shell-forming creatures like plankton produce thinner shells in more acidic ocean waters. These species are often very important parts of the marine food chain. As emissions of CO2 into the atmosphere increase the more the ocean sours.

[See a powerful 11 min film on Ocean acidification]

In less than ten years at least 10 per cent of the Arctic Ocean surface waters will be too acid for shell-forming species like plankton. By 2040 most of the Arctic Ocean will be too acidic as will significant areas of the Antarctic Ocean said Turley.

Change in sea water acidity pH caused by anthr...The cold waters of the polar regions allow more CO2 to be absorbed faster. The oceans haven’t seen a rapid change like this in 60 million years, she explained.

“But there will also be strange impacts. New research is showing changes in growth, behaviour and reproduction in a variety of non-shell forming species.”

Estuaries and ocean upwelling zones that are often important fishing grounds are also regions where acidification is fastest. Those areas are also subject to low oxygen levels and increasing temperatures creating new conditions in the oceans that no marine species has ever had to cope with.

Oceans are also absorbing most of the extra heat trapped by the additional CO2 in the atmosphere. Again, without this land temperatures would far higher and extreme weather events far worse.

“There is some evidence that some crab species cannot tolerate higher temperatures when ocean is more acidic,” she said.

The changes in the oceans are very worrying for developing countries who will be most affected and have little capacity to cope with this she said.

The only solution is to cut emissions although it may be possible to grow algae to absorb carbon and then remove it and use it for food or biomass or some other purpose that keeps the carbon out of the ocean or atmosphere she said.

Despite their fundamental importance and role in the planet’s climate system, oceans have not been part of previous climate negotiations. Efforts are being made to include oceans in the formal negotiations of COP 17. Not that will help the oceans without commitment to make significant cuts in CO2 emissions which reached their highest level ever in 2010.

“Some countries are fighting like the devil here in Durban against emission targets that the science says we need. You have to ask in whose interests are they working for,” said Nick Nuttall spokesperson for the UN Environment Program (UNEP).

Those counties need to be publicly held to account for “not doing the right thing”, Nuttall said.

Another thing that needs to change are the more than 600 billion dollars a year in public subsidies governments spend on fossil fuels. Stop the subsidies and use the money to improve fuel efficiency and fund alternative energy Nuttall said.

“Ocean plankton provides 50 percent of the oxygen we breathe – far more than tropical forests,” said Philippe Vallette, co-President, World Ocean Network.

Despite these huge environmental challenges humanity can find ways to live sustainably and ensure the health of the world’s ecosystems.

“This is very exciting moment for humankind. We need to reinvent a world taking into account the limits of the earth,” Vallette said.

First published as  Sour Seas, Shrinking Stocks | COP17 CLIMATE CHANGE DURBAN 2011.

Click for a free comprehensive guide  Ocean acidification. OA not OK: 

An introduction to the chemistry of Ocean Acidification 

3 thoughts on “Oceans Becoming Hot, Sour and Breathless

  1. Of course, the oceans are also facing catastrophic overfishing (including the habitat destruction associated with bottom-trawling), unprecedented species migration (associated with ship ballast, canal building and more recently, warmer waters and melting ice opening migration routes between the Pacific and Atlantic) and increasing levels of plastic and mercury pollution. If the combination of the three effects listed in the post is bad enough, then when combined with these other stresses, things look grim for the oceans. Two marine biologists with whom I’ve tried to initiative conversations about the future of the oceans have ended in tears as they describe their outlook.

    • Byron, you are correct in saying the oceans face many impacts, some of which I have written about and are posted here. Use the search window for “oceans” to find some of these.

      • Yes indeed, and I have appreciated your work on these and other topics. Please keep it up! I was just adding some extra context for other readers.

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