United Nations Special Report: Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate 

This week, during Climate Week, the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a new special report that highlights exactly how climate change is affecting our oceans. The news is not good. 

For decades, our ocean has been “taking the heat” for climate change, absorbing more than 90% of the heat and nearly a third of the carbon dioxide from greenhouse gas emissions. The result is an ocean that is warmer, more acidic, starved of oxygen, and less habitable for fish and marine wildlife.

Climate change is causing devastating impacts in the ocean, and these changes are happening faster than ever. Without dramatic action, impacts—from sea level rise and weather regulation to food stocks and vital ecosystems—will only get more severe.

“Climate change is the defining issue of our time,” said Vikki Spruill, President and CEO of the New England Aquarium. “The Earth is raising red flag after red flag and we can’t continue to ignore the signs. We need to take action to heal our ocean and, with it, our planet.”

The Ocean is the Heart of the Earth’s Climate System

Just like your heart regulates the flow of blood throughout your body, the ocean regulates the Earth’s climate system by absorbing heat from the air and moving that heat and moisture around the globe. 

Comics by Maris Wicks

When we burn fossil fuels like coal, oil, and natural gas, we release excess carbon dioxide into the atmosphere and into the ocean, where it traps heat. The added carbon dioxide emissions put a lot of stress on the ocean, damaging its ability to keep the climate stable.

As a result of this stress, sometimes the ocean pumps too much heat and moisture throughout the system, sometimes too little. If we think about the ocean as the heart of the climate, we can see that we need to give it time to heal to prevent further damage to it. We need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and restore ocean habitats by providing better ocean management and conserving special places in the ocean. 

More Carbon Dioxide = A More Acidic Ocean

Carbon dioxide, which we exhale every day, is a normal part of life. Plants “breathe in” carbon dioxide to grow. But we are also adding carbon dioxide (CO2<) to the air when we burn oil, coal, and natural gas for energy. This is called “Rampant CO2” because there’s just too much of it for the environment to handle—and concentrations are still rising. When rampant carbon dioxide builds up in the ocean, it changes the chemistry of the ocean.

This is called ocean acidification.

Comics by Maris Wicks

Just as humans need calcium to build their bones, sea creatures need calcium carbonate to build strong skeletons and shells. But this change in chemistry from excess CO2 is reducing the amount of calcium carbonate in the ocean causing an “osteoporosis of the sea.” The lack of calcium carbonate prevents animals at the bottom of the food chain from building and maintaining the protective shells they need to survive. It is disrupting the food chain, undermining the stability of the oceans ecosystem.

It’s Not Too Late to Heal the Ocean!

We know climate change is scary. But it’s not the time to be scared. It’s the time for action. It’s not too late. 

climate change pics
By Maris Wicks

To help heal our ocean and our blue planet from climate impacts, we need to: 

Substantially reduce greenhouse gas emissions, especially carbon dioxide, which causes ocean acidification. 

  • This is the most important thing we can do for the ocean. Ocean-based solutions, like reducing emissions from offshore industries and supporting well-sited offshore renewable energy, must be implemented as well.

Protect the ocean’s natural ability to store carbon and mitigate climate change

  • This means conserving and restoring coastal “blue carbon” ecosystems, including mangroves, seagrass beds, and salt marshes.

Implement adaptation strategies to increase ocean resiliency to the unavoidable impacts of climate change.

  • This includes strongly protecting at least 30% of the ocean in areas where marine wildlife can thrive, as well as promoting sustainable fisheries management, pollution reduction, ocean habitat restoration, and ocean planning.

Do you have questions about climate change? We have answers. 

We’ll take the best climate change questions here and answer them in a blog on the Aquarium’s website. Email us your questions at: social@neaq.org