Global Warming: Man or Myth?

Scientists can also wear their citizen hats

Climate Change Impact on Oceans & Shallow Seas

with 18 comments

The first comprehensive synthesis on the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans has found they are now changing at a rate not seen for several million years.  According to the report by Hoegh-Guldberg & Bruno (2010): (summarized by the authors here and here)

“Concentrations of man-made greenhouse gases are driving irreversible and dramatic changes to the way the ocean functions, with potentially dire impacts for hundreds of millions of people across the planet.  The impacts of climate change on the world’s oceans include decreased ocean productivity, altered food web dynamics, reduced abundances of habitat-forming species, shifting species distributions, and a greater incidence of disease. Further change will continue to create enormous challenges and costs for societies worldwide, particularly those in developing countries.”


Oceans are critical for life for the following reasons: (Ibid)

  1. The produce about 50% of the oxygen that humans and other species breathe.
  2. Oceans absorb 30% of the carbon dioxide produced by humans and more than 85% of the extra heat trapped as a result of global warming.
  3. It is estimated that 80% of people now live within 60 miles/100 kilometres of the coast, and more than 3.5 billion people depend on the ocean for their primary source of food. In 20 years, this number could double.

The report concludes that ocean ecosystems are changing much faster than at any time in the previous several millions of years.  All marine ecosystems from intertidal to deep ocean and from tropics to polar oceans are all changing rapidly, directly impacting the ability of fisheries and other coastal resources to provide support for coastal populations worldwide.  Ocean ecosystems appear to be approaching a number of critical thresholds at which the risk of catastrophic changes increases sharply (Ibid).

The scientists found that key habitat-forming organisms such as corals, sea grasses, mangroves, salt marsh, and oysters are starting to disappear as a result of global climate change. Hundreds of thousands of species depend on these habitats, further emphasising the major threat that man-made global warming poses to biological diversity in the ocean.  For example, half of the species that live on coral reefs need to have the carbonate structures that corals build, but corals have been disappearing at a rate of roughly 1% per year around the world. If this rate of loss continues, most reefs will have negligible numbers of coral on them by 2050, putting at risk the habitat of many hundreds of thousands of species (Ibid).

The study found that changes in sea temperature are having direct effects on the ocean’s species, with fundamental implications for reef connectivity and conservation.  For example, many species have planktonic larvae which disperse using ocean currents. As temperature increases, the length of time and hence the distance these larvae will travel will get smaller. Reef systems may experience a loss of some species due to the fact that they no longer can disburse far enough to reach these locations (Ibid).

Temperature has a fundamental effect on biological processes.  Moderate increases in temperature increase metabolic rates, which ultimately determine life history traits, population growth, and ecosystem processes. Organisms tend to adapt to local environmental temperatures with optimal physiological responses matching temperatures that are close to the environmental average. Organisms are able to acclimatize to a range of temperatures around these optimal values.  Beyond this range, however, acclimatization fails, mortality risk increases, fitness is reduced, and populations decline or are driven to local extinction (Ibid).

The study found that warmer sea surface temperatures are reducing upwelling and consequently the resupply of nutrients in the upper layers the ocean. The reduced amount of nutrients means less primary productivity by marine phytoplankton, which is critically important to the basic food chains of the ocean.  For example, the least productive waters of the Pacific and Atlantic oceans have expanded by 6.6 million km2 or by about 15.0% from 1998 through 2006 (Ibid).

The study found that diseases and troublesome invasive species are becoming more common, with many examples of diseases spreading rapidly as a result of warming conditions. Organisms are moving towards higher latitudes and are causing massive changes in ecosystems as they do.  There are also numerous examples of novel communities within ecosystems that are popping up which have no known precedent. For example, the black spined sea urchin has migrated south from New South Wales and is increasingly removing Tasmania’s kelp forests and replacing them with “barrens”.  Another examples include the spread of the oyster parasite Perkinsus marinus across a 500-km range of the northeastern United States during pronounced warming in 1990 and 1991  and the temperature susceptibility of red abalone in California to a fatal rickettsial infection (Ibid).

Sea ice plays a critical role in structuring the biodiversity of polar oceans. The spring melt has a major role in determining the timing of phytoplankton blooms which influences polar marine food webs. In addition, the loss of sea ice will drive additional changes through reductions in food webs that are dependent on sea-ice algae, which may explain the recent 75 ± 21% per decade decrease in krill. Sea ice also plays a critical role for a wide range of birds and mammals, functioning as a temporary or permanent platform from which crucial predatory, reproductive, or migratory activities are carried out.  Many arctic mammals face serious declines, with polar bears projected to lose 68%(~700,000 out of 1 million km2) of their summer habitat by 2100. Ice-dependent Antarctic organisms such as penguins and seals are declining and, in some cases, face an escalating risk of extinction under the current projections for Antarctic warming (Ibid).

The research also revealed that temperatures of +2°C and atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations of 450 ppm cause major changes to ocean ecosystems from polar to tropical oceans, meaning that it is now even more important to avoid exceeding these levels (Ibid).

In the words of one of the authors, Dr. John F. Bruno:

What strikes me the most about the recent science coming out on this topic, is the degree to which we are modifying fundamental physical and biological processes by warming the oceans. The warming doesn’t just kill sensitive species, it modifies everything from enzyme kinetics, to plant photosynthesis and animal metabolism, to the developmental rate and dispersal of larval (baby) fish to changing the ways food webs and ecosystems function. And the big surprise, at least to me, is how quickly this is all happening. We are actually witnessing these changes before we predict or model them. This isn’t theoretical; this is a huge, real-world problem. Moreover, we, not just our children, will be paying the price if we don’t get a handle on this problem very soon.” (Bruno, 2010)

Schofield, et al. (2010) studied the effect of rapid climate change on ecosystems in the West Antarctic Peninsula and found:

  1. The magnitude of large phytoplankton blooms over the past 30 years has decreased by 12%.
  2. There is evidence that the algal community composition has shifted from large to small cells.
  3. Krill are being replaced by salps – a phenomenon that can be magnified over time because salps consume krill eggs and larvae. 
  4. The spawning the spawning behavior of Antarctic krill depends on sea ice.  Because krill form a critical link between primary producers and upper-level consumers, the shift in zooplankton community structure suggests that there should be dramatic changes in the higher trophic levels (fish, seals, whales, and penguins and other seabirds). 
  5. These changes have been documented most dramatically in Antarctic pygoscelid penguins. In the past 30 years in the northern WAP, populations of ice-dependent Adélie penguins have fallen by 90%, whereas those of ice-intolerant Chinstrap (P. Antarctica) and Gentoo (P. papua) penguins have risen.
  6. Shifts in climate have had a cascading effect, with altered sea ice distributions disrupting the evolved life strategies of resident species, leading to changes in community structure and in the abundance of populations, and ultimately altering the nature of local and regional food webs.

The IPCC (2007) WGII (Ch. 4.4.9) had previously identified warm and cold water coral reefs, the Southern Ocean, and sea-ice margin ecosystems as key areas of vulnerability.  The IPCC also identified ocean acidification as a serious issue facing ocean ecosystems especially coral and shelled species.

According to the Millennium Ecosystem Assessment, (Reid et al., 2005) approximately 20% of the world’s coral reefs were lost and an additional 20% degraded in the last several decades of the twentieth century.

Reefs have deteriorated as a result of a combination of human impacts such as over fishing and pollution from adjacent land masses, together with an increased frequency and severity of bleaching and ocean acidification associated with climate change. (See my blog post about ocean acidification titled: The 800 lb. Gorilla in the Ocean)

Coral bleaching occurs with the loss of symbiotic algae and/or their pigments and has been observed on many reefs since the early 1980s. It may have previously occurred, but gone unrecorded. Slight paling occurs naturally in response to normal seasonal increases in sea surface temperature (SST) and solar radiation. Corals bleach white in response to unusually high SST (~1oC above average seasonal maxima, often combined with high solar radiation). Some corals recover their natural color when environmental conditions improve but their growth rate and reproductive ability may be significantly reduced for a substantial period. If bleaching is prolonged, or if SST exceeds 2oC above average seasonal maxima, corals die. Branching species appear more susceptible than massive corals (IPCC, 2007).

Major bleaching events were observed in 1982-83, 1987-88 and 1994-95 and some more recent bleaching outbreaks are shown in Fig. 9 (Ibid) below:

Maximum monthly mean sea surface temperature for 1998, 2002 and 2005, and locations of reported coral bleaching

Maximum monthly mean sea surface temperature for 1998, 2002 and 2005, and locations of reported coral bleaching

According to the IPCC (2007) global climate model results imply that thermal thresholds will be exceeded more frequently with the consequence that bleaching will recur more often than reefs can sustain, perhaps almost annually on some reefs in the next few decades. If the threshold remains unchanged, more frequent bleaching and mortality seems inevitable. Bleaching events reported in recent years have already impacted many reefs, and their more frequent recurrence is very likely to further reduce both coral cover and diversity on reefs over the next few decades.

In their comprehensive study, Silverman, et al. (2009) estimated the global decline of coral reefs as a result of increase in sea surface temperature and partial pressure of CO2.  Calcification rates were calculated for more than 9,000 reef locations.  As the figure below shows, by the time atmospheric CO2 concentrations reach 560 ppm all coral reefs will cease to grow and will start to dissolve (red regions).

Global coral reef distribution and the temperature-related calcification rates relative to their pre-industrial rate (280 ppm) in percent

Many reefs are affected by tropical systems such as hurricanes, typhoons, and cyclones.  The impacts range from minor breakage of fragile corals to destruction of the majority of corals on a reef.   These severe storms greatly affect species composition and abundance, from which reef ecosystems require time to recover.  An intensification of tropical storms (which is expected) could have devastating consequences on the reefs themselves (IPCC, 2007).

The annual recreational value of the coral reefs of each of six Marine Management Areas in the Hawaiian Islands in 2003 ranged from $300,000 to $35 million.  The total damages for the Indian Ocean region over 20 years (with a 10% discount rate) resulting from the long-term impacts of the massive 1998 coral bleaching episode are estimated to be between $608 million (if there is only a slight decrease in tourism generated income and employment results) and $8 billion (if tourism income and employment and fish productivity drop significantly and reefs cease to function as a protective barrier) (Reid et al., 2005).

For a more technical discussion of how climate change impacts various ecosystem processes, please read On the processes linking climate to ecosystem changes (Drinkwater, et al., 2010)

References for this post.

Written by Scott Mandia

August 22, 2010 at 3:59 pm

Posted in Uncategorized

18 Responses

Subscribe to comments with RSS.

  1. Scott, where can I find the full text of this report?



    Hunt Janin

    August 23, 2010 at 12:14 am

    • Hunt,

      Which report do you refer to?

      Scott A Mandia

      August 23, 2010 at 10:09 am

      • Scott, I presume Hunt is referring to the document you have cited in the first paragraph as “Hoegh-Guldberg & Bruno (2010)”.

        The press release refers to an article in Science but a quick search on Science Online doesn’t find anything.

        Why oh why when press releases announce newly released papers can they not give a reference?!


        August 24, 2010 at 4:39 pm

      • Oops, I see you’ve given it in the References for this post” link at the bottom of the post.

        Hoegh-Guldberg, O. & Bruno, J. (2010). Impacts of climate change on the world’s marine ecosystems. Science, 328, 1523-1528.


        August 24, 2010 at 4:45 pm

  2. Scott, I thought that your first para. referred to a report. May I read it wrong. If so, no need to do anything.


    Hunt Janin

    August 23, 2010 at 10:24 am

  3. Scott (or for any other helpufl expert:

    I need some hand-holding for one small point for my book-in-progress on sea level rise.

    Please have a look at Wikipedia’s article on “Current sea level rise,” and especially at the chart on recent sea level rise 1880-2000.

    I need to make some kind of easily-grasped general statement about the trendline of sea level rise. For example, I’d like to say that, “When smoothed a bit, this trendline rises at an angle of about X degrees.”

    What do you think? Can you also give a rough figure for X?

    Hunt Janin

    August 24, 2010 at 7:41 am

    • Hunt,

      I caution against that approach because it will not show the magintude of the problem as well as using actual numerical rates and the increase in these rates expressed as percentages.

      Of course, a picture is worth a thousand words.

      Scott Mandia

      August 24, 2010 at 8:46 am

    • Hunt,

      Please see this excellent sea level rise plot:

      Click to access SL_1870-2010.pdf

      Scott A Mandia

      August 26, 2010 at 12:49 pm

  4. OK, Scott. Thanks.

    Hunt Janin

    August 24, 2010 at 9:07 am

  5. For my book-in-progress on sea level rise, I need to develop a list of “poster-children of sea level rise,” i.e., countries or cities that will certainly experience real problems due to sea leve rise. What are your suggetions such a list?

    Hunt Janin

    August 28, 2010 at 10:17 am

  6. Hunt, it depends on who you think your readership is.

    Bangladesh, all the island states (Maldives, Kiribati, etc) and other places where the population is vulnerable and there are no options to move. The human tragedy which might not strike some people as relevant to their own lives or well-being.

    Or look at London and Miami and all those places where there are large population centres and untold billions invested in infrastructure. And some readers may grasp the relevance and seriousness of your writing more if it seems directly connected to them.

    Have you read Mark Lynas, Six Degrees? I’ve only read some extracts and reviews, but he seems to have assembled a lot of the info you’re looking for.

    And the CIA – The World Factbook is online and has lots of info even if you need to spend a bit of time refining your search parameters.


    August 28, 2010 at 8:41 pm

  7. Thanks very much, Adelady.

    My readership will chiefly be library patrons. The only reason I’ve invited others to give me a list is that I want to draw on their own expertise, i.e., by learning which places THEY think are most threatened by sea level rise.

    Hunt Janin

    August 29, 2010 at 1:02 am

  8. FYI, per my post above, on my own steam I’ve just come up with 27 “poster children” – i.e., different cities of the world – likely to be affected by sea level rise.

    Listed in the alphabetical order of their countries, my candidates are:

    1. Buenos Aires
    2. Rio de Janeiro
    3. Dhaka
    4. Guangzhou
    5. Shenzhen
    6. Hong Kong
    7. Ningbo
    8. Shanghai
    9. Tianjin
    10. Alexandria
    11. Mumbai
    12. Kolkata
    13. Osaka-Kobe
    14. Tokoyo
    15. Nagoya
    16. Male
    17. Amsterdam
    18. Rotterdam
    19. Lagos
    20. London
    21. New Orleans
    22. Miami
    23. New York
    24. Virginia Beach
    25. Los Angeles
    26. Bangkok
    27. Ho Chi Minh City

    Any comments?


    Hunt Janin

    Hunt Janin

    August 29, 2010 at 7:17 am

    • It’s been a while my friend.

      I’m surprised you left San Francisco, the Bay and delta off your list. Parts of Treasure Island are already below sea level at high tide and a major portion of the delta and Central Valley could be severely impacted by a significant rise in sea levels.

      Best Regards,



      October 13, 2010 at 1:52 am

      • Thanks, Don. Where are you now and what is your email address?



        Hunt Janin

        October 20, 2010 at 8:26 am

  9. Islands and island nations?

    Note that there are already problems in the Torres Strait – because people are moving from low lying parts of nearby New Guinea onto the islands – which are themselves experiencing sea level rise.

    Kiribati, Tuvalu, Vanuatu and parts of the Solomons are already in trouble. Along with the Maldives.

    I’m not familiar with the issues in the Atlantic.

    And the river deltas of Bangladesh and SE Asia apart from the large cities there?


    August 31, 2010 at 11:06 pm

  10. Hunt,

    I’ll email you on your email address, if it hasn’t changed. If my email kicks back I’ll come back via this post.

    With their win tonight (about 20 Minutes ago), the SF Giants are one game away from the World Series. I’m not sure I’m excited about it since the last time they were in the Series it became an earth shattering event.

    Best Regads,



    October 20, 2010 at 11:53 pm

  11. If anyone happens to know something about the likely impact — on Chinese coastal cities — of 1 m of sea level rise, please share your insights with me.

    Hunt Janin

    October 22, 2010 at 6:58 am

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: