Mapping Climate Change Impacts to the World Ocean

The world ocean supports 2.5 trillion dollars in economic activity annually and generates food for more than 1 billion people. Stable coastlines provide homes and livelihoods to hundreds of millions even as coastal ecosystems are among the most vibrant and productive on Planet Earth. But ocean health and all that relies on it is under serious threat from human-caused climate change.

(Resource Watch provides a graphical survey of various climate-ocean indicators)

A new series of maps produced by Resource Watch¬†gives an analysis of present and future ocean health. And if fossil fuel burning continues, the prognosis isn’t good (follow this link and/or watch the above video to see more).

Present impacts to ocean ecology are already measurable in key regions such as the North Atlantic. There, ocean health is in decline from climate-change-related algae blooms, fishery losses, and expanding oxygen-deprived regions. Near the North Atlantic, the Baltic Sea hosts a large oxygen-poor dead zone and its deeper waters seep with hydrogen sulfide gas. Ocean life in the region has taken a serious blow with diverse species from puffins to lobsters to fish all feeling the heat.

(Coral bleaching predicted for the Pacific and Indian Oceans by 2050. Regions in bright yellow are expected to experience bleaching once every year under present fossil fuel burning scenarios. Image source: Resource Watch.)

With warming just at about 1 C above 1880s values, climate change related impacts to oceans are mild compared to what they will be if human civilization keeps burning fossil fuels. More severe impacts come with rising temperatures and atmospheric CO2 levels creating a grim future for corals in rather short order.

By 2030, according to WRI data, equatorial corals are expected to face bleaching every other year under present fossil fuel burning scenarios. By 2050, many equatorial and near equatorial regions will see bleaching every year. At that time, it is possible that 80-90 percent or more of present corals will have been lost.

(Hampton Roads faces large-scale inundation with 2 meters of sea level rise. Image source: Resource Watch.)

A third major impact to the global ocean system comes from melting glaciers and thermal expansion in the form of sea level rise. With both Greenland and Antarctica experiencing increasing melt rates, it’s possible that oceans could rise by 2 meters or more by mid-to-late Century. And higher levels of fossil fuel burning lead to faster rates of ocean rise.

The above map is an example of which areas are likely to face inundation across the Hampton Roads region (take a look at this link to view the interactive map) under 2 meters of sea level rise.

In total, human caused climate change impacts the oceans through four major mechanims: warming temperature, loss of ocean oxygen, acidification, and sea level rise. The maps by Resource Watch provide a broad summary of such key impacts. However, there are still quite a few avenues by which climate monitoring for the world ocean can be improved and expanded.

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