Oceans are Rising, Acidifying

The recent U.N. report on climate change paints a gloomy picture

The Maldives may sink beneath the waves entirely in decades to come. Photo: Joli
The Maldives may sink beneath the waves entirely in decades to come. Photo: Joli

The most comprehensive, authoritative report ever issued on the state of the planet’s climate was released on Monday, and the news is fairly grim.  After examining seven years of research, and compiling massive amounts of data, the U.N.’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) has concluded that human-caused climate change has already caused “sweeping effects on every continent and throughout the world’s oceans.” Nearly 2,000 experts helped prepare the U.N. report, and the results were vetted by officials from more than 100 countries in recent days. The varied panel of governmental representatives means that the governments from big, rich, polluting nations, with a short-term financial interest in continuing to tip toe around serious environmental legislation (e.g. the U.S., China), had to agree with countries that either face more imminent climate-change related dangers, or that are historically more progressive when it comes to institutionalized sustainability. Translation: since such a broad swath of governments agreed with the findings, only the most rosy, conservative picture of climate change was painted, but that picture was still downright ugly.

From the polar regions to the tropics, the oceans as we’ve historically (and, hell, prehistorically) known them are in a state of serious flux. We’ve been aware for some time, for example, that sea ice is melting in the Arctic and the Antarctic, and that changes in the atmospheric carbon levels mean ocean acidification, but this report focused on not only what the results of such climate changes are likely to be, but also on which of those changes are already underway, and how they are likely to wreak havoc on human populations worldwide.

Sea levels are on the move, rising across the globe. With that rise comes an increase in coastal erosion and damage from powerful storm surges. This also means the very real threat of submergence, as low-lying coastal regions, both as parts of large land areas and islands, confront ever-rising oceans. “Without adaptation, hundreds of millions of people will be affected by coastal flooding and will be displaced due to land loss by year 2100,” the report says. That year 2100 is significant, as the panel’s findings don’t bode well for low-lying coastal areas over the rest of this century—sea levels are projected to rise by an average of three feet. A rise of that significance would be very bad for: the Marshall Islands, Kiribati (which will likely vanish), Tonga, Tuvalu (also likely to be completely submerged), Micronesia, San Blas, Fiji, the Maldives…I could keep going.

The ocean level rise isn’t uniform across the globe either. While three feet is the expected average by 2100, certain parts of the world will, thanks to particular happenstances of geologic and bathymetric bad luck, will see much faster rises. The Eastern Seaboard of the U.S., for example, could experience a six-foot rise in sea surfaces over the next 100 years. New York, Boston, and Miami would be radically reshaped.

And it’s not just a perpetual rising tide. As the oceans suck in carbon dioxide from the earth’s increasingly polluted skies, they become increasingly acidic. That’s bad news for most ocean creatures, and particularly so for fragile coral reef systems. Expect a great deal more coral reef bleaching in decades to come, as the coral succumbs to warming ocean temperatures and toxic pH levels. The fish that depend on coral reef systems will soon vanish along with the vibrant color of their reef homes. This will be a drastic restructuring of a fishery that supports many tropical human populations that depend on seafood as an important part of their diet. A gradual warming of the seas is also screwing up the rest of the planet’s fisheries, as many species are tracking northward or southward to seek cooler water at the poles.

So the news was bad.

But the point of the report was to jumpstart the world’s governing bodies into addressing these problems. Many of the changes are looking well-nigh irreversible, though responsible choices about keeping the damage to as dull a roar as possible, and intelligent plans for adaptation to a quickly warming planet can help to mitigate potential future crises. There’s still time to change, in other words, though it needs to happen soon and at a much broader level than we’ve seen so far.

The ocean depends on it.

Read the full IPCC report here.