Climate change will destroy familiar environments, create new ones and undermine efforts to protect sea life

Climate change is altering familiar conditions of the world’s oceans and creating new environments that could undermine efforts to protect sea life in the world’s largest marine protected areas, new research from Oregon State University shows.

The changing conditions also have cultural and economic implications for the people whose traditions and livelihoods are dependent on ocean resources, said James Watson, an assistant professor in OSU’s College of Earth, Ocean, and Atmospheric Sciences and the paper’s co-author.

“What we’re looking at here is the potential extinction of a whole environment,” said Watson, who specializes in marine social-ecological systems and understanding complex adaptive systems. “In some places, the environments we have today are not going to exist in the future. We won’t be able to go visit them or experience them. It is an environmental, cultural and economic loss we can’t replace.”

The researchers’ analysis of multiple climate scenarios showed:

  • 60% to 87% of the ocean is expected to experience multiple biological and chemical changes, such as increases in water temperature, higher levels of acidity and changes in oxygen levels, by the year 2060.
  • The rate of change is expected to be even higher, 76% to 97%, in very large marine protected areas such as Australia’s Great Barrier Reef Marine Park and the Galapagos Marine Reserve in Ecuador.
  • Increases in pH, which measures ocean acidity, are expected as soon as 2030. Ocean acidification reduces the amount of carbonate in seawater, which is necessary for marine organisms, such as corals and mollusks like oysters, to develop their shells and skeletons.

Using the last 50 years of ocean conditions as a measure of stability, the researchers used several climate models to see how six variables affecting ocean conditions might change as the planet warms. They used three warming scenarios with increasing degrees of severity.

Much of the change occurs in the ocean’s two extremes: the tropics and the Arctic. The warmest places are seeing warming conditions never seen before, and the coldest places, like the Arctic, are no longer as cold as they once were. The researchers also found that most of those changes will occur by 2060, though most of the change in pH, or acidity, levels is expected much sooner, by the end of the decade.

The change is more pronounced for the very large marine protected areas that are designed to preserve threatened species and rare habitats such as coral reefs around the world. As ocean conditions change, animals in those protected areas are likely to seek other locations that are more favorable for their survival.

Journal Reference:

  1. Steven Mana‘oakamai Johnson, James R. Watson. Novel environmental conditions due to climate change in the world’s largest marine protected areasOne Earth, 2021; DOI: 10.1016/j.oneear.2021.10.016

Oregon State University (via ScienceDaily), 12 November 2021. Press release.

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