Triple trouble as oceans warm

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As huge amounts of financial investments are put into mitigating the effects of climate change on forests and renewable energy projects, marine scientists feel the oceans are being neglected by governments and policymakers. As much as the land is affected by the climate change conditions, oceans are affected by acidification, warming and deoygenation which are all detrimental to the marine ecosystem.

Climate change influences oxygen levels in the oceans with a particularly harsh effect on the warmer waters as higher temperatures reduce oxygen solubility. Ocean acidification and nutrient run-off from streams and rivers can contribute to deoxygenation. These effects combine resulting in interconnected triple trouble for the oceans. Dr Anthony Ribbink, CEO of Sustainable Ocean Trust in South Africa, and programme manager for the South African Institute for Aquatic Biodiversity, provides a human analogy where the world has two lungs – forests and oceans.
Ribbink says at the UNFCCC COP 16 in Cancun, billions of dollars were pledged to restore, develop and maintain forests. “This is welcomed as forests play such a critical role in maintaining the atmosphere and accommodating a stunning diversity of species. The focus of COP 16,therefore, was on one lung of the globe (the forests).”
The ocean covers nearly three quarters of the Earth’s surface, contains 96% of its living space, provides around half of the oxygen we breathe and is increasingly becoming a source of protein for a rapidly growing world population. In spite of this, the ocean is largely sidelined in international climate change discussions such as the current COP 17 conference in Durban, says Plymouth Marine Laboratory’s Dr Carol Turley, who is one of the delegates at the conference.

But what is less known is that oceans and seas form a major component of the earth system that supports all life in the planet. Our oceans and seas are the natural restorers of a balance that guarantees life.

Turley explains, “I am here to take the message to stakeholders and policymakers from a diverse group of organisations including, international science partnerships, oceanographic institutions and an NGO. Often forgotten in such discussions are oceans and the enormous and diverse source it provides, including flood and other resources even half the oxygen we breathe.”

“The health of the ocean is therefore relevant to every one of us on planet Earth and we are concerned about how these three stressors – ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation – produce a very worrying combination which threatens the ocean and everything it provides us. We have produced a short ocean stress guide that sums up in clear language. We would urge everyone to read it.”

While ocean acidification has recently been recognised as a high research priority topic leading to a growth of studies, deoxygenation has not reached that level of recognition. The study of warming is more mature but research at the level of ocean ecosystems and bio-geochemistry requires more attention.

Professor Bob Watson, chief scientist for the United Kingdom’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), echoed the need for the acceptance of these issues and the potential impacts of them working together. He says, “The ocean is an incredible source of food and an amazing source of biodiversity. Now we see these irreplaceable resources facing not one but three stressors
potentially acting together in ways that we are only just beginning to investigate and understand.

“Highlighting this unholy alliance is essential if stakeholders and governments are to make decisions that will affect everyone on this planet.”
Reporting Development Network Africa produces a daily COP17 newsletter, available on their website.

– By Thobile Hans, ReportingDNA