Conservation & Science

Change of Heart: How carbon emissions imperil the ocean

From Nov. 30-Dec. 11, leaders from more than 190 nations will gather in Paris for the 2015 United Nations Conference on Climate Change, or COP21. The conference aims to achieve a binding international agreement to slow the pace of climate change. If we as a global community take bold and meaningful action in Paris, we can change course and leave our heirs a better world. In advance of COP21, Monterey Bay Aquarium is working to raise public awareness about the serious ways our carbon emissions affect ocean health, including ocean acidification, warming sea waters and other impacts on marine life. Today’s post comes from our award-winning Climate Interpreter, Sarah-Mae Nelson.


 

A wonderful part of working for the Aquarium is experiencing the life of Monterey Bay. Every time I leave my desk to watch birds, otters, dolphins and whales from our back deck, I’m freshly inspired to conserve the ocean.

Sarah Mae Nelson
Sarah-Mae Nelson

At this moment in history, I’m inspired to protect the ocean from the biggest threat it has ever faced. That threat is rampant carbon dioxide.

 

Our planet has natural processes that add and remove “regular” carbon dioxide from its systems. This “regular” carbon dioxide is part of the normal life processes of plants, animals and other Earth systems.

But humans have been bringing carbon that was previously locked away back into the system. This “rampant” carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas for energy—too much and too quickly for  Earth’s natural processes to respond. Rampant carbon dioxide has gotten out of control, and the planet’s carbon balance has been thrown off.

Heat-trapping blanket

Rampant carbon dioxide in the atmosphere builds up, adding to the heat-trapping blanket that surrounds Earth. The thicker the blanket becomes, the more heat the atmosphere traps. Much of this trapped heat transfers from the atmosphere into the ocean, since the ocean and atmosphere touch across 70 percent of our planet’s surface.

Fishes can swim away to find suitable habitats as the ocean warms. Sedentary animals like corals may die if they can't adapt. Photo courtesy NOAA
Fishes may be able to swim to suitable habitats as the ocean warms. Sedentary animals like corals may die if they can’t adapt. Photo courtesy NOAA.

Warming ocean water is a problem. Animals and plants thrive within specific temperature ranges and may not be able to cope with water that is too warm. As waters warm, mobile animals seek cooler waters by either moving deeper or moving toward the poles. Animals and plants that can’t move may not survive.

Warmer water also takes up more space. Scientists call this thermal expansion, and it’s one of the factors contributing to sea level rise. As water levels rise, coastal habitats are squeezed up against human development.

Rising sea levels put important coastal habitats like mangroves and wetlands at risk. Photo courtesy Sandy Marie.
Rising sea levels put important coastal habitats like mangroves and wetlands at risk. Photo courtesy Sandy Marie.

These habitats—coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands and more—support everything from important fisheries to migrating bird populations. They also provide buffers from storm surges and ocean waves.

The rampant carbon dioxide building up in the ocean itself causes changes in chemistry, or ocean acidification. We sometimes refer to ocean acidification as the “osteoporosis of the sea” because increasing acidity makes it harder for many animals (and some plants) to build and maintain the protective shells they need to survive. These include the plankton that produce much of the oxygen we breathe, and that form the base of ocean food webs on which marine life—and many people—depend.

The heart of the planet

Rampant carbon dioxide, warming ocean water, sea level rise and ocean acidification are major changes that indicate the ocean is in trouble. And the ocean is, in fact, the heart of the climate system. Just as our heart circulates blood and regulates the body’s temperature, our ocean controls the circulation of heat and moisture around the planet. We must take care of the heart to take care of the whole.

Aquarium visitors are inspired to speak up for a future with a healthy ocean. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder.
Aquarium visitors are inspired to speak up for a future with a healthy ocean. Photo by Monterey Bay Aquarium/Randy Wilder.

Every year, the Monterey Bay Aquarium touches about two million visitors who join a growing community inspired to conserve the ocean—to take care of our planet’s heart. We can make a difference by speaking up and letting our governments know that regulating rampant carbon dioxide is critical to the health of our ocean.

This is what the 2015 United Nations climate change conference, or COP21, is all about: the global community coming together to reach an understanding of how to support human prosperity and maintain environmental integrity. By redefining “business as usual” and changing the way we power our lives, we will protect the ocean, marine wildlife, and ultimately, ourselves.

Learn how you can ask world leaders to act on climate now.

2 thoughts on “Change of Heart: How carbon emissions imperil the ocean”

  1. I agree with you Sarah-Mae. I think climate change will be the defining issue of the 21st century. COP21 will have the opportunity, which is diminishing, to mitigate the effects of climate change. Contact your government representatives that you want action on this important issue.

    Richard Ryan

    Like

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