A just-released scientific report connects these and a host of other ocean changes with human activities that take place largely on land. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate marks the first time that the IPCC has written a stand-alone report on the marine realm. It presents a detailed account of the increasingly severe consequences of climate change for the ocean, its trillions of creatures and, ultimately, ourselves.
The report makes clear that to protect the ocean, we must first reduce our dependence on fossil fuels. But we must also reduce ocean stress, caused by overfishing and pollution, so the ocean is healthy enough to weather the changes already underway.
“The bottom line is that we need the ocean. And right now, the ocean needs us,” said Julie Packard, executive director of the Aquarium. “It’s not too late to take courageous climate action and safeguard the ocean from further damage.”
Sometimes, research has to venture out of the lab and into the wild. That’s the basis for a long-term Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) project to study how the ocean’s changing chemistry will affect marine life.
Ocean acidification is a change in seawater pH (and other elements of the ocean carbonate system) as the ocean absorbs excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. This change will become more pronounced as people continue to burn fossil fuels.
“It’s important to try to get a better understanding of what impact that will have,” says George Matsumoto, senior education and research specialist at MBARI.
In a more acidic ocean, the minerals used to form calcium carbonate are less abundant, making it more difficult for marine species—from tiny sea snails to oysters and crabs—to build shells or skeletons. MBARI marine ecologist Jim Barry says researchers are working to understand the impact not just on individual animals, but also on broader ecosystems. Continue reading Field studies of ocean acidification
The week of September 10, people from around the world are gathering in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. Convened by the State of California, the Summit brings together leaders—representing nations, states, cities, companies, investors and citizens—to celebrate climate action, and step up their ambitions to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement. Climate scientist Heidi Cullen, director of communications and strategic initiatives for the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, shares some of the studies MBARI has undertaken to understand the impact of climate change on ocean ecosystems.
Caring about the ocean means caring about climate change. From increasing ocean acidification to coral bleaching to harmful algal blooms, climate change—caused by the burning of fossil fuels—is having a profound and sometimes deadly impact on our ocean. I am tremendously hopeful that recent advances in science and technology will help us better understand and protect the planet’s largest ecosystem. We rely on it for so much!
At MBARI, engineers and scientists are developing new tools to study and monitor ocean change. Innovative technology is improving the way we access, sample, measure and visualize the rapid changes taking place across the ocean—from the surface down to the bottom of the sea. It is also improving the way we manage ocean resources. I want to share three exciting examples of cutting-edge ocean research happening at MBARI right now. This research is helping us better understand how climate change is already impacting our living ocean, and how we can better protect it in the future. Continue reading MBARI puts science and technology to work for ocean health
The week of September 10, people from around the world are gathering in San Francisco for the Global Climate Action Summit. Convened by the State of California, the Summit brings together leaders—representing nations, states, cities, companies, investors and citizens—to celebrate climate action, and step up their ambitions to meet the targets set by the Paris Agreement. Ken Alex, senior policy advisor to Governor Jerry Brown, reflects on California’s leadership at this pivotal moment.
I grew up in Southern California, and spent lots of time at Seal Beach, Sunset, Huntington, and Bolsa Chica. Those beaches were a central part of my childhood. Today, scientists say they may be gone within 80 years.
Just last month, the state of California issued its most recent evaluation of climate change impact, California’s Fourth Assessment. The report states that as many as two-thirds of Southern California beaches could completely erode by 2100 without large-scale human interventions. By 2050, just 32 years from now, an estimated $17.9 billion worth of residential and commercial buildings across the state could be inundated by sea-level rise.
At the bottom of the ocean, amid vast, pitch-dark expanses of mud, there are a few exceptional, rocky places: undersea mountains. Here, the muddy seafloor and burrowing worms give way to bedrock and beautiful gardens of corals and sponges.
Seamounts, as these peaks are known, “are the Yosemites of the deep sea that nobody sees,” says Dr. Jim Barry, a marine ecologist at MBARI—the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute. “Under the surface, right off the horizon, is this wonderful world that’s been developing, slowly but surely, like a sequoia forest.”
Some seamounts are covered with ancient corals and deep-sea sponges that stand a meter tall and resemble oak trees. They’re also home to anemones, clams, small crustaceans and all manner of fishes. Many of these creatures rely on smell instead of vision to find food in these inky waters, at least half a mile deep.
Seamounts are a frontier for scientific discovery, both for basic research, designed to fill knowledge gaps, and for applied research aiming to solve practical problems. Biotech companies, for instance, are interested in unique chemicals produced by deep-sea microbes, sponges, and mussels, which hint at pharmaceutical applications from antibiotics to fighting cancer.
In the early days of ocean acidification research, experiments were simple, says benthic ecologist Jim Barry. Some involved plopping fish into containers of high-carbon seawater. This sort of lab test allowed researchers to observe animals’ physiological responses to our ocean’s changing chemistry.
These days, many studies attempt to address the more difficult question of how acidification and ocean warming might affect interconnected marine species. “What you can’t learn from tests of fish in a jar,” Barry says, “is how climate change affects the way energy moves through a food web.”
That line of inquiry may start in the pages of scientific journals, but it leads somewhere more intimate: our dinner plates.
The ocean is about to take center stage at the United Nations’ annual climate change conference in Bonn, Germany. November 11 is officially Oceans Action Day at COP23, when leaders of government, businesses and organizations around the world turn their attention to the sea that covers more than 70% of our planet.
Speakers at the international gathering will discuss how carbon emissions from human activities are changing the world’s ocean (and not for the good)—including impacts on marine wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture, and coastal communities. They’ll also explore science-based solutions, such as ramped-up development of renewable energy and ecosystem-based adaptation to the changes already underway.
Ocean Action Day includes a program at the U.S. Climate Action Center—the largest pavilion at the climate talks. Michael Bloomberg (the former mayor of New York City and a U.N. Special Envoy for Cities and Climate Change) and California Gov. Jerry Brown will release a new “America’s Pledge” report detailing what U.S. states, cities, and businesses are doing to keep the U.S. on track to meet its Paris Agreement carbon reduction goals. They will be joined by Pittsburgh Mayor Bill Peduto and Laura Phillips, Senior VP of Sustainability for Walmart, to discuss specific actions to meet the emission targets established under the Paris Agreement.
The day will conclude with a signing ceremony for the “Because the Ocean Declaration,” an effort led by Chile, urging nations of the world to protect the ocean as they map paths toward implementing the breakthrough Paris Agreement—the commitment, adopted two years ago by nearly every nation in the world, to reduce our emissions of heat-trapping gases. The island nation of Fiji is also leading a collaborative effort, called the Ocean Pathway Partnership, to give the ocean the prominent place it deserves in the U.N.’s ongoing climate conversations.
Life seems easy for the little red tuna crabs delighting Monterey Bay Aquarium visitors. The temperature and water chemistry in their exhibit are carefully controlled and stable. In the wild, it’s a different story. Conditions are changing—fast. Crabs and other critters are in a race with time, as record levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide (CO2) warm the planet and change ocean chemistry.
For more than a century, scientists have known that burning fossil fuels warms our planet. They’ve also long been aware of another impact—this one affecting ocean chemistry.
In 1909, a chemist at the Carlsberg Brewery Laboratory discovered that CO2 dissolved in water not only creates tiny bubbles (like in beer). It also makes liquid more acidic. In other words, our burning of fossil fuels is changing the chemistry of the ocean, a process called ocean acidification.
The impact of rising atmospheric CO2 developed slowly and subtly. By the 1960s, however, climatologists began raising alarms. Decades later, Al Gore’s landmark book and movie, An Inconvenient Truth, framed climate change as an urgent threat to human survival. As the scientific community worked to build accurate models of climate dynamics and explore ways to deal with rampant carbon, some eyed the ocean—which absorbs 25 percent to 30 percent of the excess CO2 in the atmosphere—as a solution. Could we stash even more atmospheric carbon in the sea, sparing the planet the worst impacts of global warming? Continue reading Science on the front lines of ocean acidification
Monterey Bay Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard was in New York City from June 5-9 to attend the United Nations’ first-ever Ocean Conference. Aquarium staff members presented at several key sessions, on issues ranging from ocean acidification and plastic pollution to sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. Here, Julie reports on the conference’s significant progress toward ocean health.
Last week, the United Nations Headquarters in New York City was especially blue, and the ocean was on everyone’s mind. Inside and out, the building was adorned with ocean-themed sculptures and stunning marine-life photographs. The halls were filled with noted ocean conservation leaders including Sylvia Earle, Sir Richard Branson and Prince Albert of Monaco.
They joined representatives from governments, organizations and businesses around the world, who had gathered for the first-ever UN Ocean Conference with one goal in mind: to protect the sea that supports all life on our planet.
I attended as part of our Monterey Bay Aquarium team, to listen, meet with delegates and call for action on three critical fronts: environmental and social sustainability of global fisheries and aquaculture; steps to address the causes and impacts of climate change and ocean acidification; and new commitments to reduce the flow of plastic pollution from land to sea.
It was gratifying to see the tangible results of our team’s participation in the growing collaborations among NGOs, governments and business leaders. We heard from many attendees that the Aquarium’s presence—and our ideas—have had a real impact.
On June 9, the final day of the conference, the UN’s 193 member nations unanimously approved a global call to action that mirrors the Aquarium’s own ocean conservation goals. They agreed “to act decisively and urgently [for ocean health], convinced that our collective action will make a meaningful difference to our people, to our planet and to our prosperity.”
Countries resolved to improve fisheries management and restore fish stocks to sustainable levels, end harmful fisheries subsidies and crack down on illegal fishing. They agreed to pursue solutions for ocean acidification, rising sea levels and ocean warming—with most nations reaffirming their commitment to the Paris Agreement on climate change as an important roadmap toward a more stable planet. And they pledged to adopt new strategies to reduce the flow of single-use plastics, like disposable bags and cutlery, that ultimately make their way to the ocean.
“The Ocean Conference has changed our relationship with the ocean,” Peter Thomson, president of the UN General Assembly, told the delegates. “Henceforth none can say they were not aware of the harm humanity has done to the ocean’s health. We are now working around the world to restore a relationship of balance and respect towards the ocean.”
The first Ocean Conference was convened in support of the updated sustainable development goals adopted by the UN in 2015, which included a new Goal 14: “to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources” by 2030.
The global community is joining together for the ocean, the heart of Earth’s climate system. The Aquarium will continue to be part of the conversation, working with a growing network of government, NGO and business partners to make a difference for the future of our ocean.
The ocean produces half the oxygen we breathe, regulates climate by absorbing atmospheric carbon, and is the primary source of protein for 3.5 billion people. More than 80 percent of the Earth’s population lives within 60 miles of the coast. But these and other critical benefits are fast eroding as growing human needs strain the ocean’s living systems.
From June 5-9, the United Nations will take on the challenge when it hosts its first Ocean Conference at the U.N. Headquarters in New York City—a global gathering focused on protecting the ocean resources so vital to human survival.
The Monterey Bay Aquarium will play a significant role in the conference, advocating for policies to reduce single-use plastic, new commitments that promote sustainable international fisheries, and concerted action to tackle ocean acidification and other impacts of climate change.
“The ocean plays a vital role in enabling life on Earth to exist, yet ocean health has been ignored for too long by international decision-makers,” says Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard. “The U.N. Ocean Conference is a signal that things are changing. We’ll be there as a voice for the living ocean on which our future depends.”
Julie notes that the U.N.’s Sustainable Development Goal for the ocean mirrors the priorities that Monterey Bay Aquarium works to advance, in the United States and around the world. Key staff will contribute to Ocean Conference forums on critical issues, including:
Improving the sustainability of global fisheries
Through our Seafood Watch program and extensive international policy work, the aquarium plays a respected and influential role – among governments, major businesses, producers and consumers – in shifting global seafood production in more sustainable directions.
As the conference begins, Aquarium Executive Director Julie Packard will be part of a World Economic Forum announcement and discussion about new commitments from major seafood businesses, governments and nonprofit organizations to end illegal, unregulated and unreported tuna fishing around the world.
Last year, we championed California’s first-in-the-nation statewide ban on single-use plastic grocery bags. This summer, we’ll launch a collaborative campaign involving 20 leading North American aquariums to reduce consumer demand for single-use plastic products – from drinking straws to shopping bags.
On Sunday, June 4, our Seafood Watch team will be part of a day-long World Ocean Festival, a free event on Governors Island in New York Harbor that precedes Monday’s opening of the U.N. Ocean Conference. We’ll host a public exhibit space about sustainable fisheries and aquaculture opportunities, and a Seafood Watch expert will be part of a sustainable seafood presentation during the festival.
And in partnership with the U.N. Environment Program, the International Program on the State of the Ocean, Ocean Conservancy and the Zoological Society of London, we will promote the #OneLess initiative, aimed at inspiring Ocean Conference delegates and the public to reduce single-use plastic products like water bottles. The campaign will distribute reusable water bottles to conference attendees, and will encourage delegates to promote policies that reduce our reliance on single-use plastic products.
World leaders are coming together this week to address the biggest threats to our shared global ocean, but we all have a role to play. You can make a difference through small changes, such as driving less, switching to reusable water bottles and following Seafood Watch recommendations.
We hope you’ll join us in protecting our living ocean, on which all life depends.