Our oceans are in crisis, we must act to prevent catastrophic change to them

Today, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change releases its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, the result of nearly two years of work by over 100 scientists. It chronicles our best understanding of the changes sweeping through our oceans and the ice-covered parts of the globe.

The IPCC report will show two bitter truths: our oceans are in crisis; and we are nearly out of time to prevent catastrophic changes to them.

Scientists predicted global warming from carbon dioxide even before Abraham Lincoln’s presidency. Exxon predicted our present global warming caused by fossil fuel emissions over forty years ago. As our fossil-fuel emissions heat the planet, the threat to Earth’s oceans is staggering. In one day this summer, the Greenland ice sheet lost 12.5 billion tons of ice that then poured into the sea — the equivalent to 125,000 Washington Monuments of ice melting into the ocean in a day.

As our carbon emissions heat our planet, we’re spared far worse because of the oceans. Oceans have absorbed more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped by our greenhouse gas emissions. How much heat is that? Every second, Earth’s oceans absorb more than four Hiroshima-style atomic bombs-worth of excess heat energy. So they warm.

As waters warm, they expand. Added water volume and ice melt together raise sea levels. We’re already seeing sunny day flooding at high tide in many coastal areas.

This spells trouble. A study from February showed nearly $16 billion in coastal home value depreciation from Maine to Mississippi. According to the Government Accountability Office, coastal property losses from sea level rise and storms will total, in the near term, billions of dollars every year — and over $50 billion every year by late this century. Imelda has just unleashed “major, catastrophic flooding” in Texas. We can’t tie any single storm to climate change, but such storms are projected to do more and more damage as climate change intensifies.

Heat is not the only change. Oceans also absorb carbon dioxide — about 30 percent of our emissions. Again, that spares us from worse warming, but it creates its own chemical effects: salt water acidifies when it’s exposed to more carbon dioxide. Small-shelled sea creatures are already experiencing damage; aquaculture farms in the West Coast have had young shellfish completely wiped out; and coral reefs worldwide are taking a beating. There is a narrow range of pH, temperature, salinity, and water clarity hospitable to most corals. Carbon pollution and climate change disrupt all of these factors. That means coral reefs—our ocean’s nursery, home to 25 percent of Earth’s fish biodiversity—is under siege.

From 2014-2017, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration observed “the longest, most widespread, and possibly the most damaging coral bleaching event on record” across the world’s oceans. A survey of the Great Barrier Reef found that around half of the reef’s corals died. Researchers have recently identified the early signs of another potentially devastating ocean heat wave in the Pacific. In fact, the term “marine heatwave” is a relatively new term to define these new conditions.

As oceans warm and acidify, it’s becoming harder to make a living from the sea. Since 1930, around 4 percent of potentially harvestable seafood has been lost to ocean warming. And the fish we’re able to harvest are getting smaller – up to 20 to 30 percent reduction in body size for each degree Celsius increase in temperature – due in part to warming temperatures and related depletion of ocean oxygen.

Cod, lobster, and other historic catches are fleeing traditional fishing grounds to chase cooler waters towards the poles and offshore. In New England, commercially valuable species are shifting northward and out of our fishermen’s nets and traps. Fishermen will tell you, it’s not the ocean their fathers and grandfathers knew.

We must heed the oceans’ warnings. Children will look back with dismay if our generation allows this irrecoverable damage to our ocean ecosystems and economies. We will deserve their scorn.

The science of climate change, as Donald Trump said in 2009, is “irrefutable,” and portends “catastrophic and irreversible consequences.” Earth’s oceans are crying out. We must now pass legislation to limit the carbon pollution driving this destruction, as we prepare our communities for the unavoidable harms our negligence has already baked in. America must reengage with the countries of the world, as a leader. And corporate America must cease its shameful funding of the corrupt forces blocking climate action in Congress.

Pope Francis’s encyclical warned that we are turning “the wonderworld of the seas into underwater cemeteries bereft of color and life.” He said in a recent Sunday address, “We have caused a climate emergency that gravely threatens nature and life itself, including our own.” Oceans don’t lie; polluters do. Now is the time to hear the oceans, and act.

Whitehouse is a member of the Environment and Public Works Committee.

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