Climate Change and Oceans

Climate change is real, and we’re already seeing its impact on our oceans.

Oceans cover more than 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, so it’s no surprise that climate change hits them hard. As our climate warms, so do the oceans, and these temperature shifts suggest a rough road ahead for the ecosystems and animals we love.

Water, water everywhere
What happens when water warms? It expands. So as temperatures increase in the planet’s vast oceans, the sea level rises. Scientists predict that this change could cause major problems for coastal areas and low-lying islands, such as those in the South Pacific and Caribbean. Shedd’s conservation biologist, Dr. Chuck Knapp, has studied West Indian rock iguanas throughout the Caribbean for more than 10 years. According to Knapp, “Rising sea levels could be very bad news for iguanas that live on these islands, especially the Exumas, which rise only a few meters out of the ocean. The Bahamian people are very concerned not only for their animals, but also for the shrinking islands they have long called home.”

Disappearing ice
What happens when ice warms? It melts. We already see major melting of continental ice in Antarctica and Greenland. As continental ice melts into the ocean, the new water pushes sea levels up, and the large amount of cold fresh water mixing into the ocean has the potential to disrupt the huge global current called the “Great Ocean Conveyer Belt,” which cycles water through the Atlantic, Indian and Pacific Oceans. The wide, white expanses of continental and sea ice also serve as giant mirrors reflecting solar radiation back into space; without them, this heat will stay near the Earth’s surface, exacerbating climate change. We also have seen melting sea ice in the Arctic, which directly affects some of the wild populations you’ll see at Shedd. Polar bears, penguins and other marine animals rely on sea ice for hunting and breeding; as this ice disappears, so do the animals’ feeding and mating habitats.

Big word, bigger problem
The very same CO2 heating up Earth’s oceans and skies also sinks into the water, causing oceans to become more acidic. The phenomenon of acidification has scientists worried about the future of shelled marine animals, including the corals that form reefs. Acidification disrupts corals’ and other animals’ ability to form and maintain their calcium carbonate shells, making it difficult for them to survive and mature. Some of these animals form the cornerstone of the ocean food web; if acidification advances too far, coral reefs could dissolve and oceanic animals could struggle to find enough food.

Bottom line: The more CO2 and other greenhouse gases we pump into the skies, the more hardship our oceans will face.

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