Demand Ocean Protection is included within the COP21 Climate Agreement
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Researchers argue that both ocean scientists and world leaders should pay more attention to how communities are experiencing, adapting to and even influencing changes in the world's oceans.
When President Barack Obama visited the shrinking Exit Glacier in September, he pointed to a very obvious sign of our warming planet literally at his feet.
Less visible, but perhaps more indelible, signs of changing climate lie in the oceans. A University of Washington researcher argues in the journal Science that people — including the world leaders who will gather later this month in Paris for the latest round of climate change negotiations — should pay more attention to how climate change's impacts on ocean and coastal environments affect societies around the globe.
“When people see headlines on big science findings that the oceans are acidifying, or sea levels are rising, they feel a sense of helplessness in the face of inexorable change,” said lead author and UW professor of marine and environmental affairs Edward Allison. “Yet there are many things that people can, and indeed are already, doing.”
The review paper, published Nov. 13, looks at scientific understanding of changes to the world's oceans and how people around the world are responding. These reactions include denial, planned adaptation, a search for technical fixes, and political activism to reduce emissions and tackle the root causes of climate change. The paper also looks at how projected changes in climate and ocean conditions will impact economic activities related to the oceans, to begin a discussion about the future of the human relationship with the marine environment.
“I felt that there was a gap in the research being carried out by the ocean sciences community,” Allison said. “Research hasn't really engaged with the politics of climate mitigation and adaptation in the way that scientists working on forests and agriculture have.”
“There's a lot of citizen action that can be done at a local level to prevent coastal damage,” he continued. Examples cited in the paper include planting mangroves, saving coral reefs, or preventing beach erosion by planting coconut palms. In the Pacific Northwest, shellfish growers have begun to look at how to adapt their practices to account for more acidic seawater.
On a broader scale, Allison points to this spring's “kayaktivist” protesters in Seattle's Puget Sound, where people took to non-motorized marine craft to protest plans to capitalize on melting Arctic sea ice to extract more fossil fuels from the Arctic Ocean “I think the kayaktivists send a message that the future of the oceans, when it comes to energy generation, should be in renewables rather than in fossil fuels,” Allison said. “You have this perverse situation where the melting of polar ice caps has allowed more economic exploitation of the Arctic, including for industries that contribute most to global warming.” Allison began his career in marine biology, but later moved to fisheries management and international development, a background that helps him bring an interdisciplinary perspective to marine issues. A recent paper he co-authored looked at the tradeoffs between sustainable-fish certification programs and food for local fishing communities.
Co-author Hannah Bassett, a UW master's student in marine and environmental affairs, reviewed existing literature on how climate change will affect marine industries. The impacts on most industries will be negative, she found. But a few, including research and development of new ocean technologies, may benefit. She also found that while aquaculture is often cited as a possible adaptation strategy for declining wild fish stocks, aquaculture itself is anticipated to feel some negative impacts from climate change.
The paper lays out the case for a more interdisciplinary approach to ocean research, with natural and social scientists working together to document the impact of climate change and resulting actions and to understand how oceanic peoples are experiencing, adapting and even influencing changes in the world's oceans. Shifts in the world's oceans are long-lasting, extend far beyond the coast, and touch humans on many different levels, Allison said.
“The ocean is not just a place for economic activity,” he said. “It's a place for inspiration, it's a place for enjoyment, it defines many cultures, and it's a place where we get some of our most nutritious food. What's at stake here? It's a timely moment to think about that.” More
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Many of the projected effects of climate change on the world’s oceans are already visible, such as melting polar ice caps and rising sea levels. But invisible changes may be the most threatening to human food sources, beginning with the tiny species like plankton that inhabit the bottom of the oceans’ food chain.
|Strength in numbers: A satellite’s view
of billions of E. huxleyi, blankets of tiny
plankton floating off the east coast of
southern England. Credit: NASA
As emissions from human activities increase atmospheric carbon dioxide, they, in turn, are modifying the chemical structure of global waters, making them more acidic.
Many researchers have speculated that most aquatic species won’t be able to adapt in time to survive the acidification that has already begun, but there are some who are more optimistic. One of them is Jennifer Sunday, a postdoctoral ecologist and evolutionary biologist at Canada’s Simon Fraser University.
“You hear people say species aren’t going to adapt in time,” she explained in an interview, “but I just knew that we don’t really know that. This really motivated me to start thinking about a study to test this. We can and did put some science and data to this question.”
Sunday and her team published a review earlier this year in Trends in Ecology and Evolution, aiming to help researchers improve their chances of finding potential survivors. It suggests that more studies should focus on identifying species with enough genetic variety to produce a mutant that can adapt.
Sunday feels that the better researchers get at searching for adapters, the more will be found.
The process that creates this risk is swift and globe-spanning. Oceans absorb roughly a quarter of the rising CO2 emissions from the atmosphere, so as that concentration increases, the oceans absorb more of the gas. In the past 150 years, human-induced climate change has changed the ocean acidity from roughly pH 8.3 to pH 8. (In the pH scale, 1 is most acidic, 7 is neutral and 14 is basic, or least acidic).
“It’s anywhere from 10 to 100 times faster than anything we’ve seen over the last million years,” said Richard Feely, a chemical oceanographer and senior researcher with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “That’s just according to our good records.” And acidity is only expected to rise.
“By the end of this century,” Feely said, “projections are an increase by another 100 to 130 percent.”
Which tiny sea creatures can win the lottery?Changes in pH levels can have massive effects on marine life, a fact that has led many scientists to believe that most species can’t withstand large increases in acidification. When CO2 mixes with ocean waters, it binds calcium molecules that are usually free for marine creatures to build shells. The more acidic waters can also corrode existing shells.
Sunday isn’t the first to try and isolate survivor species. Several teams worldwide have already been exploring the potential of marine life species to adapt to predicted climate changes.
In 2009, a European team published their research on the tiny circular plankton Emiliania huxleyi, made up of light-reflecting mineralized calcium ovals. These tiny plankton sometimes float in populations so large, they’ve been spotted from outer space.
Looking at strains of the plankton under varying CO2 levels, researchers found that while some plankton had difficulties forming their shells when the water was more acidic, others did not, causing researchers to speculate that the plankton might be able to use another form of calcium to substitute in shell making. Other studies have shown that certain species thought incapable of evolving quickly can, in fact, rapidly adapt.
Evolution is like a lottery. The faster a species reproduces, the greater the number of unique ticket combinations it creates in the genes of its offspring. For species that produce the right genetic mutation, their number is drawn and the prize is survival.
“This is particularly important when you want to look at a species’ ability to cope with change,” said Jennifer Pistevos, a master of research student at the Marine Biological Association, who studied clone populations of Celleporella hyalina, a tiny organism she found to have an amazing ability to reproduce in both more acidic and warmer water conditions.
“Faster reproduction rates give us a chance to see how vulnerable a species is,” Pistevos said.
In 2012, Sunday and colleagues spanning three continents reviewed past studies, and based on this work, propose future research dedicated to efforts to locate adapters by incorporating more experimental evolution into the studies.
Experimental evolution identifies members of a species born with the winning genetic ticket instead of those who can come up with the correct number during their lifetime. Being born with the winning ticket means these individuals may be able to ride the acidifying tides in the kind of time frame needed—which is immediately.
Questions that can’t be answered in the labSunday and her team also suggest more work should consider a species’ response to multiple environmental changes, such as increased temperature and oxidation levels, as well as multiple stages of life. Currently, many studies only follow a species at a specific point in its members’ lives, such as infancy. Without tracking an organism over its life span and in a complicated and changing environment, it’s hard to say whether observed changes will translate into overall survival.
Although Sunday sees her work as laying the groundwork for less pessimistic predictions of the future fate of marine life, not everyone agrees that the approach is realistic. Aran Mooney, a biologist at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute who studies the effects of ocean acidification on Atlantic long-fin squid larvae, said some methods Sunday recommends are not practical for studying all species.
“Overall, the review is very good for us,” he said. “The authors point out some great goals and the limitations we face.” But for species like squid, Mooney said, Sunday’s suggestions are unlikely to be used.
“Measuring squid evolution in the lab might be doable to some extent,” Mooney said, “but it isn’t really possible to raise multiple generations or even young to adult—[they] don’t do all that well in captivity.”
Though Sunday agreed that predicting exactly how oceans will look in the future remains hard, researchers are starting to look in the right places. “The question just seemed too difficult before,” she said. “We wanted to put our advice out there so people could see it’s not impossible for species to adapt in time.”
“I do predict some species will adapt,” concluded Sunday, “but not all. Ultimately, it’s pretty shocking to think we’ll be losing species and it will be because of us.” More
Baleen and sperm whales, known collectively as the great whales, include the largest animals in the history of life on Earth.
Though large in size, whales have long been considered too rare to make much of a difference in the ocean, and the focus of much marine ecological research has been on smaller organisms, such as algae and planktonic animals. While these small organisms are essential to life in the sea, they are not the whole story. As great whales recover from centuries of overhunting, scientists are beginning to appreciate their roles as ecosystem engineers of the ocean.
A recent synthesis, published in Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment, evaluates decades of research on the ecological role of great whales. The authors, led by Joe Roman at the University of Vermont, suggest that the influence of these animals has been substantially undervalued because, until now, scientists have underestimated the degree to which the decline in whale population has altered marine ecosystems.
Commercial whaling dramatically reduced the abundance of great whales—by at least 66 percent and perhaps as high as 90 percent, according to some estimates—but recovery is possible, and potentially critical for ocean resiliency.
Among their many ecological functions, whales recycle nutrients and enhance primary productivity, locally and on a regional scale. Whales mix the water column, and after feeding at depth, release surface plumes of fecal material. This “whale pump” supplies iron and nitrogen—essentially fertilizers—to primary producers in the surface ocean. Further, the migrations of baleen whales between highly productive, high-latitude feeding and low-latitude calving grounds are among the longest annual movements of mammals. By fasting in these winter calving grounds near the equator, humpback whales, for example, release nitrogen in the form of urea into comparatively nutrient-poor areas—transporting nutrients nearly 10,000 kilometers on the “great whale conveyor belt.”
Sometimes, commercial fishermen have seen whales as competition. But this new paper summarizes a strong body of evidence that indicates the opposite can be true: whale recovery “could lead to higher rates of productivity in locations where whales aggregate to feed and give birth,” supporting more robust fisheries.
Whales, as one of the longer-lived species in marine systems, can ease the impact of perturbations inclimate, predation and productivity. The continued recovery of great whales may help buffer marine ecosystems from destabilizing stresses and could lead to higher rates of productivity in locations where whales aggregate to feed and give birth.
And when they die, many whale carcasses sink to dark depths of the ocean—delivering massive pulses of organic material to a realm that is typically nutrient and energy impoverished. A 40-ton gray whale, for example, provides more than 2,000 times the background carbon flux that would typically rain down on the area underlying the carcass in an entire year.
“Whales appear to harbor a specialized suite of animals in the deep sea, with many species requiring whale falls to complete their life cycles and persist in the ocean,” said Craig Smith, co-author and Oceanography Professor at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. “When whales were removed from the ocean by whalers, these whale-fall specialists lost their essential habitat.” More
I question if it would be possible for humans to work with marine mamals and other sea creatures to 'manage' the oceans for the benefit of the marine environment, the inhabitants of the oceans as well as the living beings on the planet. It would certainly be beneficial to all concerned and would possible go some way towards mitigating climate change. Editor