Adaptation to impacts of greenhouse gases on the ocean

Greenhouse gases are producing changes in ocean temperature and circulation, and these changes are already adversely affecting marine biota. Furthermore, carbon dioxide is absorbed by the oceans from the atmosphere, and this too is already adversely affecting some marine ecosystems. And, of course, sea-level rise affects both what is above and below the waterline. Clearly, the most effective approach to limit the negative impacts of climate change and acidification on the marine environment is to greatly diminish the rate of greenhouse gas emissions. However, there are other measures that can be taken to limit some of the negative effects of these stresses in the marine environment. Marine ecosystems are subject to multiple stresses, including overfishing, pollution, and loss of coastal wetlands that often serve as nurseries for the open ocean. The adaptive capacity of marine environments can be improved by limiting these other stresses. If current carbon dioxide emission trends continue, for some cases (e.g., coral reefs), it is possible that no amount of reduction in other stresses can offset the increase in stresses posed by warming and acidification. For other cases (e.g., blue-water top-predator fisheries), better fisheries management might yield improved population health despite continued warming and acidification. In addition to reducing stresses so as to improve the adaptive capacity of marine ecosystems, there is also the issue of adaptation in human communities that depend on this changing marine environment. For example, communities that depend on services provided by coral reefs may need to locate alternative foundations for their economies. The fishery industry will need to adapt to changes in fish abundance, timing and location. Most of the things we would like to do to increase the adaptive capacity of marine ecosystems (e.g., reduce fishing pressure, reduce coastal pollution, preserve coastal wetlands) are things that would make sense to do even in the absence of threats from climate change and ocean acidification. Therefore, these measures represent “no regrets” policy options for the marine environment. Nevertheless, even with adaptive policies in place, continued greenhouse gas emissions increasingly risk damaging marine ecosystems and the human communities that depend on them.

Caldeira, K., 2010. Adaptation to impacts of greenhouse gases on the ocean. American Geophysical Union, Fall Meeting 2010, abstract #U52A-03. Abstract.

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