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What's climate change doing to the oceans?

Temperatures are changing more rapidly in Polar Regions and are changing food web dynamics with consequences for life above and below the ice. Charismatic species such as Emperor Penguins are declining due to warming conditions.
Image courtesy of Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland

When you hear the expression "global warming" you might think about the air getting warmer. But, climate affects the ocean too and the creatures living in it.

In a special issue of Science that's all about the oceans, Ove Hoegh-Guldberg of the University of Queensland in Australia and John Bruno of the University of North Carolina say that keeping marine life healthy is an important reason why we need to reduce the amount of greenhouse gases that our cars, factories and other technologies are releasing into the atmosphere.

Penguin populations are struggling with rapidly changing sea temperatures and major changes in food web dynamics. Over the past 50 years, the population of Antarctic emperor penguins has declined by 50 percent. Using the longest series of data available, researchers have shown that an abnormally long warm spell in the Southern Ocean during the late 1970s contributed to a decline in the population of Emperor Penguins at Terre Adelie, Antarctica.
Image courtesy of Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, Global Change Institute, University of Queensland

In the last several decades, the oceans have absorbed increasing amounts of heat and carbon dioxide. This has affected the water's acidity in many places and its circulation in some spots too.

These changes, in turn, influence the survival of various species that are more or less able to adapt to these new conditions. Some of these species are especially important because they form the habitat for many others. For example, if climate change affects corals, sea grass meadow, mangroves, or salt marshes, then the fish, mammals, birds and other animals that depend on this habitat may suffer too.

So what do we do? Human can protect certain species directly, by making sure they don't take too many fish, or by making sure that areas like mangrove swamps don't get cut down and filled in. But, the authors say that cutting back on the amount of greenhouse gases going into the atmosphere is one of the most important priorities for protecting ocean life.

The special section on oceans will appear in the 18 June issue of Science.