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Touched by Polar Bears or Tuvalu: It's Time to Give our Oceans a Voice

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By Raminder Chowdhary

Here is some news you may have missed: The Ocean & Climate 2015 Platform was launched on World Ocean Day (June 8) with the primary objective of placing our planet’s oceans at the heart of the climate change debate. Long overdue and quite rightly so!

The platform, an alliance between all stakeholders of civil society and the research community, is being launched ahead of the next Conference of Parties to the United Nations Climate Change Convention (COP21), which will take place in Paris in November 2015.

Why should you care?

Our oceans are truly bountiful, providing us with work, fun, food, sport and most of all life itself. We owe them the air we breathe; the weather to grow crops; water to support the smallest to the largest animals on earth and 80 percent of all species; vast ice flows to help regulate our climate; millions of jobs and a life-time of pleasure. They are responsible for the origin of life and play the crucial role as the thermostat of Earth. Sadly though, our oceans are dying. While the impact of oceans on weather and climate on a local and global scale is fairly well understood, only recent findings have highlighted how long term changes in climate fundamentally alter key properties of our oceans. This has far reaching implications.

So, what is the problem?

Our oceans are heating up. A quick primer on oceans and climate change: The oceans absorb a large proportion of sunlight hitting the Earth’s surface and spread this to deeper waters through global ocean currents (good time to Google “great ocean conveyor belt”). Basic science also teaches us that water has a much higher heat capacity than air, meaning the oceans can absorb larger amounts of heat energy with only a slight increase in temperature. Ocean temperature, particularly sea surface temperature, plays a critical role in our planets climate system as heat from ocean surface waters provides energy for storms and thereby influences weather patterns. Clarity, at last!

In several different  data analyses, the long-term trend shows that the oceans have become warmer since 1950s. The oceans heat content indicator describes trends in the amount of heat stored in the World’s oceans.

We are aware that higher greenhouse gas concentrations are trapping more energy from the sun and our primer just taught us that changes in ocean systems occur over centuries. Stands to reason that the oceans have not yet warmed as much as the atmosphere and studies have shown that they have absorbed more than 90 percent of the Earth’s extra heat since 1950s.

Ocean surface temperatures are rising too: The surface temperature of the world’s oceans varies mainly with latitude, and as the oceans absorb more heat, sea surface temperatures will increase and the ocean circulation patterns that transport warm and cold water around the globe will change.

This can significantly alter marine ecosystems, impact species of plants, microbes and animals that are present in particular locations, alter migration and breeding patterns, threaten sensitive ocean life such as corals, etc. Over longer periods of time, rising surface temperatures slow down circulatory patterns critical to raising deep sea nutrients and impacting fish populations and with it our food supply and livelihood for nearly 1 billion people. Because of ocean surface interaction with atmosphere, rising temperatures will have a profound impact on climate.

Ocean acidity (the crucial variable): Guess what? That's, up too! As carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere have risen, the oceans have absorbed more of it and played an important role in regulating the amount of heat trapping CO2 in the atmosphere. Studies have shown that nearly 30 percent of anthropogenic CO2 produced over the past 200 years has been absorbed by our oceans.

What has this meant for the oceans? Carbon dioxide reacts with sea water to produce carbonic acid resulting in increased acidity and a change in mineral balance of the ocean waters. This can lead to broader changes in the overall structure of ocean and coastal ecosystems, and can ultimately affect fish populations and the people who depend on them.

Sea levels: What about Tuvalu and the polar bears? Do we care?

As the temperature of the Earth changes, so does sea level. This works in two interesting ways:
  1. Changes in the volume of water and ice on land (namely glaciers and ice sheets) can increase or decrease the volume of water in the oceans
  2. As water warms, it expands slightly—an effect that is cumulative over the entire depth of the oceans
Rising sea level inundates low-lying wetlands and dry land, erodes shorelines, contributes to coastal flooding, and increases the flow of salt water into estuaries and nearby groundwater aquifers. Higher sea level also makes coastal infrastructure more vulnerable to damage from storms.

Now back to our COP21. The oceans of our planet must be an integral part of any climate debate and subsequent agreement. As Ocean and Climate are strongly interconnected systems, the debates conducted and the decisions taken at the 2015 Paris Climate Conference should deeply impact the marine environment as well as the millions of people who depend on it. We all must ensure that an ambitious climate Agreement is reached in Paris with the conservation and protection of oceans as one of its key outcomes.

Speak up NOW. It's time to give the oceans a voice.

Raminder Chowdhary: After earning two Master’s Degrees in Economics and Business Admn., I worked around the World for various MNC’s for 20+ years as a supply chain specialist. It was time to change tracks and I set up One Earth Foundation - an NGO focusing on conservation of natural eco-systems, preservation of traditional wisdom and environmental education. I am a regular speaker on various regional and national forums promoting the need for higher levels of corporate participation in social and environmental issues facing us today. I have had the opportunity to initiate and successfully implement numerous projects in the sectors of TK & TCE preservation, special needs groups, Livelihood challenges for indigenous communities, water, large scale forest and lakes stewardship drives and engaging students in various ecological initiatives. Image credits: 1) Flickr/Mark Engelbrecht 2) Chart:  NOAA/NESDIS/NODC Ocean Climate Laboratory 3) & 4) Data Source:  National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration 2013
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