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Ocean warming poses major risks, study finds
October 21, 2016
The ocean has inspired mariners, explorers, writers and countless others for centuries. It is Earth’s defining feature: nourishing life; regulating our climate and controlling weather patterns; providing us with essential goods and services, and is responsible for 50% of the oxygen we breathe. One of the great mysteries of humankind is that we know relatively little about the workings of this complex global system. What we do know is that our oceans are changing dramatically, and those changes are bringing significant risks to our way of life.XL Catlin has supported scientific research projects on key indicators of change in the ocean since 2009, from Arctic sea ice loss and coral reef health to its third major research program, the XL Catlin Deep Ocean Survey. We also recently funded a report by the International Union for Conservation of Nature (IUCN), titled “Explaining Ocean Warming: Causes, Scale, Effects & Consequences.” The analysis, compiled by 80 scientists in 12 countries, describes this phenomenon as “one of the greatest hidden challenges of our generation.” Unbeknownst to many, the scale of ocean warming is hard to comprehend. Analysis by the Grantham Institute in 2015 concluded that if the same amount of heat that has gone into the top 2,000 meters of the ocean between 1955 and 2010 had gone into the lower 10 kilometers of the atmosphere, then the Earth would have seen a warming of 36°C (97°F).So, while ocean warming is occurring out of our everyday sight, the changes happening there are becoming apparent the world over. “Ocean risk” therefore describes the potential effects of these changes on businesses, society and ecosystems around the world. Among the findings of the study:
- The heat content of the upper 700 meters of the ocean since 1995 has increased by the equivalent of about 240 times the human global energy consumption in 2013.
- Sea surface temperature, ocean heat content, sea-level rise, melting of glaciers and ice sheets are increasing at accelerating rates.
- The deep ocean, below 700 meters, is storing 16% to 89% more heat than was observed a few decades ago.
- Ocean deoxygenation and acidification are increasing.
- Ocean warming will not only have profound implications on communities and economies around the world, but will do so for whole ecosystems, too.
What are the risks arising from these changes? Here are just a few:
- Inundation of coastal communities: Rising sea levels and impacts from more destructive storm surges are linked to ocean warming. The insurance industry is already responding to higher frequency and severity of flood events. As sea levels rise, people and property will face greater risks.
- Increased storm intensity: Projections into the future suggest there is likely to be an increase in the wind speed of Atlantic hurricanes, with associated impacts for insured assets (and uninsured) assets.
Reduced food security: Warming temperatures will cause changes to the abundance and range of marine species used for food, leading to implications for both the billion people who depend on fish for their principal source of protein and the fishing and aquaculture industries linked to this harvesting.
Lower crop yields: Ocean warming is causing rainfall increases in some mid–latitude and monsoon areas, but decreases over various subtropical zones, which will affect crop production. When coupled with underperforming marine fisheries, changing food yields are likely to put pressure on the world’s food production and distribution systems.
Human health dangers: With poleward range shifts in marine systems happening 1.5 to 5 times faster than on land, higher ocean temperatures may facilitate the proliferation and spread of viruses, diseases and pathogens such as cholera and ciguatera. Shifting rainfall patterns that leave bodies of standing water also support populations of mosquitoes that spread malaria, Zika and other viruses.
Acceleration of heat transfer: Although the deep ocean is absorbing more heat and carbon dioxide, it is a dynamic environment that eventually releases those back into the environment. Low-oxygen areas of the ocean are altering not only marine ecosystems but also the cycle in which nitrous oxide, a powerful greenhouse gas, moves from the ocean into the atmosphere.
Loss of biodiversity: Ocean warming, alongside other stressors such as acidification and human impacts, are causing coral bleaching events that destroy those ecosystems and the fisheries they support. Marine biodiversity is especially valuable to medical research, as currently at least 18,000 health care products are derived from 4,800 different species.
Economic loss: The oceans’ Gross Marine Product is valued at $2.5 trillion, which would rank as the seventh largest economy in the world. In order to keep it healthy and supporting so many lives and livelihoods, we need to understand the oceans’ dynamics. There is so much yet to learn.
What can we do about these disturbing trends? XL Catlin is in the risk business, and the first step in mitigating risk is to fully understand it. Studies like this, along with our other ocean science research, are part of our effort to better understand the dynamics of the oceans and how they influence everyday life on Earth. Working with scientists, risk professionals, public entities and others, we can spread awareness and inspire action to reduce the ill effects of ocean warming while preparing to address the effects these risks impose on our communities, our businesses and our lives, now and into the future.
To learn more, access the full IUCN report or its executive summary. Chip Cunliffe is director of environmental science programs and education and a member of XL Catlin’s Corporate Social Responsibility team.