The oceans are the driver of weather and climate, and are also susceptible to the changes that go along with global warming. As the oceans and atmosphere get warmer, we are seeing some very distinct changes and effects, as the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2 and heat are taxed to the limit.

Some of those effects include:

Climate Change and Coral Reefs 

Coral reefs are entire colonies that support a huge number of organisms, from protozoa all the way up to fish and shellfish. Microorganisms are what give coral reefs their bright colors and provide food for the rest of the food chain. When coral bleaching occurs, the polyps that live in the coral discharge algae – the coral continues to live, but being deprived of algae, it begins to starve. A 2016 coral bleaching event is believed to have killed 29 to 50 percent of the coral in the Great Barrier Reef.

Coral reefs serve as a nursery and habitat for many commercially-popular fish species, as well as being a barrier that helps buffer wave action and lowering damage from storms, flooding and erosion. If coral reefs are lost on a large scale, the economic impact would be huge.

Fish Migration and Displacement 

For decades, zoologists have watched as species like armadillos, rattlesnakes and others have expanded their range. The same thing happens with fish species as well. Warming waters in the Arctic have seen the presence of fish species that were never seen in the region before, disrupting fishing practices. Arctic ice cover reached a new low in 2012, expanding the Arctic Ocean and attracting new fish species to the now ice-free waters. Carbon dioxide from the atmosphere also lowers the pH of ocean waters, killing off mollusks and other shellfish that commercial fish species rely on for food.

Shrinking Wetlands 

Wetlands help protect coastal communities against storms, provide habitat for many fish and wildlife species, and serve as a natural “water filter” that captures fertilizer and other contaminants before they can pollute fresh drinking water. Rising sea levels overwhelm wetlands and obliterate them, which causes a disruption in the region’s ecosystem. When this happens, the pollutants end up in lakes and rivers rather than being trapped in wetland areas, leading to “dead zones” and fish die-offs.

Ocean Acidification

Since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, about 30 percent of the oxygen that humans have sent to the atmosphere has been absorbed by the ocean. This mechanism helps put the brakes on global warming, but in recent years scientists have noticed that ocean acidification is about 30 times greater than what would occur naturally, and average pH of ocean waters has dropped by 0.1 point. This damages many ocean species that rely on calcium carbonate to build their shells and skeletons. Acidification also cuts the amount of sulfur that is returned to the atmosphere by the oceans, which reduces the amount of solar radiation that can be reflected back into space. The end result is even more warming in a feedback loop that accelerates warming and its disastrous effects on oceans.

U.S. Global Change Research Program Report

Established in 1989, the U.S. Global Change Research Program is a multi-department program that is mandated to study the effects of climate change, provide leadership and guidance, and coordinate international efforts to address its effects. The U.S. Global Change Research initiative recognizes that the United States should take a leadership role in all these efforts. That includes researching global warming and climate change, promoting a widespread understanding of the issues, facilitating research and exploring solutions that can realistically be deployed.

The USGCRP’s website is filled with data and information on global climate change, as well as multimedia content produced by the group’s member agencies.

The path ahead is clear. Wetlands can be restored and even some coastal plains and deltas can be reclaimed as wetland areas, although it may mean giving up valuable agricultural land. People in various locales and communities can be educated on how to help coral reefs recover and become more resilient – these programs are already underway in places like New Guinea and Indonesia. Mangroves and shellfish reefs can slow down erosion and provide protection from storms and wave action, as we find out more and more how natural “infrastructure” can be used along with man-made engineering solutions.

It’s a rapidly changing world, with an exploding population and more and more industrialization and consumption. More and more demands are being put on agriculture and fisheries, and the consequences of mismanagement are becoming more apparent every day. Innovation and cooperation can help mitigate these effects and slow down climate change, but the time to act is now, before it’s too late.

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