Our oceans in jeopardy
The Earth’s oceans are immense, covering almost 75% of the planet’s surface and containing over 90% of living species. Oceans are vital for human survival. They provide food, enable global transportation and commerce, and produce the majority of the oxygen that we breathe. But while they may seem massive and invulnerable, our actions are causing serious damage to the oceans which jeopardizes our own future.
In September 2019, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a report detailing the oceanic consequences of climate change. Written by over 100 international scientists and based on over 7,000 studies, the report describes future risks and current realities including food insecurity, sea levels rise, severe weather, coastal community destruction, loss of oxygen, and ecosystem degradation.
Since the start of the industrial age, oceans have absorbed about 25% of the carbon dioxide released by fossil fuel use and 93% of the excess heat trapped in the atmosphere (sciencemag.org). Oceans function as a crucial buffer, moderating the rise in global air temperatures. However, this service comes at a cost. Since 1901, sea surface temperatures have steadily increased (epa.gov), resulting in dire consequences for ocean ecosystems and the communities that depend upon them.
Food security is of primary concern as seafood is a crucial nutritional source for millions of people and per capita fish consumption has reached record highs (fao.org). Over 70% of global fish stocks are already over-exploited or depleted due to unsustainable fishing practices. Seafood availability is projected to decline by an additional 25% within the century if emissions continue rising (un.org).
Warming waters force fish populations to migrate irregularly and emissions alter ocean chemistry, making seawater increasingly acidic and oxygen poor. These changes damage marine ecosystems including coral reefs, which fish depend on for habitat. A decline in fisheries threatens global food security and is disastrous for millions of people who rely on fishing for their livelihoods.
Emissions are also accelerating sea level rise and increasing the frequency and strength of severe weather events. Water molecules swell as they absorb heat in a process known as thermal expansion. Warming waters also cause glacial melt, with Arctic sea ice disappearing at accelerating rates, unprecedented in the past 1,000 years (un.org).
Coastal cities like New Orleans, Miami, and New York already suffer billions of dollars in damages every year due to flooding, and historically rare 100- or 1000-year floods are expected to become a regular (even annual) occurrence (un.org). Scientists project sea level to increase by one foot by 2050, making permanent displacement a real possibility for millions of Americans.
While these warnings are dire, adapting to current conditions and reducing future damage is actionable. Cities can prepare for rising seas and volatile weather by building sea walls and other infrastructure, implementing climate conscious zoning, and creating evacuation plans. Cities like Boston have already adopted “Climate Ready” plans. Sustainable fishing practices must be enforced and practiced by governments and businesses worldwide to prevent further depletion of fish stocks. Each individual can protect our oceans by making environmentally conscious purchases, voting choices and political advocacy, and reducing personal waste and energy consumption.
Nick Wilson is a junior at Boston College and is studying environmental sciences.