When thinking about climate change, it’s easy to focus on how changes in the environment will affect the land around you. After all, you rely on it to provide your food, and you may also be concerned about more severe weather events disrupting life in your region.
However, climate change also has an incredible impact on the oceans and marine life. Salt water covers the majority of the earth’s surface, so global warming’s effect on the oceans has significant implications for everyone. Here are seven major ways climate change is affecting the world’s seas right now:
- Migrating Fish
As the ocean temperatures rise, schools of fish are moving into areas where they previously could not have survived. As fish move to new areas, fleets of fishing boats are sure to follow.
This could have a disruptive effect on the ecosystem of the Arctic as it warms. Fish will be creating competition for food and other resources while fishing fleets may add pollution to an already fragile area.
- Rising Sea Levels
As polar ice caps melt and the seas rise, coastal areas are in danger of becoming permanently flooded. Warm ocean water also expands to take up more space than cold water, which exacerbates the problem.
This is especially harmful to coastal wetlands, the grasses of which provide a natural defense of the mainland. Though vegetation here can usually grow taller to keep up with slowly rising tides, rapid changes in the sea level will “drown” the wetlands and leave the coasts increasingly vulnerable.
- Bleaching Coral Reefs
When the water around a coral reef gets too hot, the coral expels algae and turns white — it looks bleached. Coral and algae rely on each other for survival, and though coral can bounce back from a minor bleaching event, major ones can destroy coral reefs. When coral dies, the oceans lose a major ecosystem that harbors vast biodiversity.
- Acidifying Oceans
Another major pain point for coral reefs is ocean acidification. The ocean absorbs huge amounts of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gasses emitted by human industrialization. While this helps reduce air pollution on land, the seawater itself is becoming more acidic over time. This is damaging to coral reefs as well as to sea creatures that need to use calcium to form their shells or exoskeletons. It endangers food sources for people and fish alike as well.
- Changing Weather Patterns
Ocean temperatures are a major driver of weather events around the world, as anyone who has lived through an El Niño winter knows. Ocean currents act as a conveyor belt that carries storms and weather fronts around the globe.
When these currents change, weather patterns can change as well, which can be damaging to migrating species. Warmer ocean temperatures also cause stronger tropical storms and hurricanes, which can bring significant damage to coastal areas.
- Reducing Reproduction
Many species of fish and marine animals take their cues to reproduce from the water temperature around them. Typically, this allows them to mate and raise young at the optimal temperature for survival.
Rising ocean temperatures, however, can cause that signal to get lost. For example, sea turtles may fail to mate if ocean temperatures are too high, causing a drop-off in their numbers and making their survival a source of concern.
- Limiting Atmospheric Sulfur
Many marine organisms emit sulfur, which in turn leaves the ocean and enters the atmosphere, where it helps form clouds. These clouds shade the earth from direct sunlight and help keep it cool. Without clouds, though, the seas could warm even more.
As mentioned before, warmer seas mean greater acidification, which leads to even less sulfur. It’s a disastrous feedback loop that could speed global warming exponentially.
What You Can Do to Help
If you’re feeling overwhelmed by climate change, you can do your part to protect marine life. Start by working to reduce your carbon footprint, which will help keep ocean acidification at bay. Simple steps to using less energy include turning down your thermostat, driving less and using energy-efficient light bulbs in your home.
Using reusable containers instead of plastics that often end up polluting the oceans can also make a big difference. Even if you don’t live near the sea, reducing your use of chemical fertilizers in your lawn and garden and avoiding soaps with phosphates can help protect the oceans from harmful run-off.
You can also volunteer to clean up coastal areas to keep them free of hazardous trash and waste.
Keep in mind to avoid excessive use of sunscreen as sunscreen has been found to be detrimental to the coral reefs, as mentioned in a recent article by snorkelsandfins.com.
Though climate change is a massive problem, small changes in your habits can go a long way to help make the world — and its oceans — better for both people and animals.
Megan Nichols enjoys discussing environmental issues and other scientific discoveries on her blog, Schooled by Science.