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Triple Trouble: Ocean under stress

28 November 2011

Ocean Under Stress guideScientists concerned how three environmental problems could combine to threaten the ocean, take warnings to the climate change discussion at the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change Seventeenth session of the Conference of the Parties (COP17) in Durban, South Africa.

Over the coming decades and centuries, the ocean will become increasingly stressed by at least three interacting factors. Rising seawater temperatures, ocean acidification and ocean deoxygenation will cause substantial changes in marine physics, chemistry and biology. These changes will affect the ocean in ways that we are only beginning to understand; these changes are likely to affect every one of us.

The global ocean covers nearly three quarters of Earth’s surface, contains 96% of its living space, provides around half of the oxygen we breathe and is an increasing source of protein for a rapidly growing world population. However, human activity over the last 200 years is having an impact on this precious resource on local, regional and global scales. It is imperative that international decision-makers understand the enormous role the ocean plays in sustaining life on Earth and the consequences of a high CO2 world for the ocean and society.

An international partnership of Plymouth Marine Laboratory, Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego, OCEANA, UKOA, the European Project on Ocean Acidification (32 partner institutes from 10 countries), and the Mediterranean Sea Acidification in a Changing Climate programme (16 partner institutes from 10 countries mainly bordering the Mediterranean Sea), is now highlighting its concern about the impacts of the multiple and interacting stressors of  warming, acidification and deoxygenation on ocean systems, which will occur in the coming decades as the result of a high CO2 world.

Plymouth Marine Laboratory’s Dr Carol Turley OBE, will be taking these messages to the Conference of the Parties 17 at the UNFCCC meeting in South Africa. “I’m here to take the message to stakeholders and policymakers from a diverse group of organisations including, international science partnerships, oceanographic institutions and an NGO. Often forgotten in such discussions are the ocean and the enormous and diverse resources it provides, including food and other resources even half the oxygen we breathe. The  health of the ocean is therefore relevant to everyone one of us on Planet Earth and we are concerned about how these three stressors - ocean warming, acidification and deoxygenation - produce a very worrying combination which threatens the ocean and everything it provides us. We have produced a short Ocean Stress Guide that sums this up in clear language; we would urge everyone to read it.”

While ocean acidification has recently been recognized as a topic of high research priority leading to a growth of studies, deoxygenation has not reached that level of recognition. The study of warming is more mature but research at the level of ocean ecosystems and biogeochemistry requires more attention.

But what is really missing is the joint perspective, where the full and combined effect of two or all three stressors acting at the same time is investigated. Already detailed laboratory studies and field experiments from regional to global scale monitoring and modelling are beginning, through cross-disciplinary and international cooperative partnerships. In order to better understand the impacts on ecosystems and the consequences for every one of us, research will increasingly have to follow a multi-disciplinary approach across the physical, chemical, life, Earth, social and economic sciences.

These studies need to be policy relevant and ensure a rapid transfer of knowledge to and from researchers and decision makers. Importantly, research capacity needs to be grown globally, particularly in developing countries where their dependence on the goods and services provided by the ocean makes them particularly vulnerable and where capacity is notably low. To achieve all this there would be a need for greater coordination of monitoring, research and training at the international level.

Professor Bob Watson, Chief Scientist for the UK’s Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), echoed the need for acceptance of these issues and the potential impacts of them working together: “The ocean is an incredible source of food and an amazing source of biodiversity. Now we see these irreplaceable resources facing not one but three stressors potentially acting together in ways that we are only just beginning to investigate and understand. Highlighting this unholy alliance is essential if stakeholders and governments are to make decisions that will affect everyone on this planet. Carbon dioxide, the common factor, is related to energy, energy is related to economic growth and therefore, as we argue that we need to reduce the threat of climate change, ocean acidification or oxygen depletion, we will have to change the way we produce and use energy, the way we manage our land as well.”