A landmark report confirms Australia is girt by hotter, higher seas. But there’s still time to act



Aerial imagery revealing the extent of storm damage in Dee Why on Sydney’s Northern Beaches in 2016 following wild weather.
NEARMAP/AAP

Jess Melbourne-Thomas, CSIRO; Kathleen McInnes, CSIRO; Nathan Bindoff, University of Tasmania, and Nerilie Abram, Australian National University

A landmark scientific report has confirmed that climate change is altering the world’s seas and ice at an unprecedented rate. Australia depends on the ocean that surrounds us for our health and prosperity. So what does this mean for us, and life on Earth?

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) findings were launched in Monaco on Wednesday night. They provide the most definitive scientific evidence yet of warmer, more acidic and less productive seas. Glaciers and ice sheets are melting, causing sea level to rise at an accelerating rate.

The implications for Australia are serious. Extreme sea level events that used to hit once a century will occur once a year in many of the world’s coastal places by 2050. This situation is inevitable, even if greenhouse gas emissions are dramatically curbed.

The findings, titled the Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, strengthen the already compelling case for countries to meet their emission reduction goals under the 2015 Paris agreement.

Beachgoers cool off in the water at Bondi Beach in Sydney, February 2019. Australia’s coast dwellers must adapt to the inevitable effects of climate change.
Joel Carrett/AAP



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A rapid and dramatic cut in greenhouse gas emissions would prevent the most catastrophic damage to the ocean and cryosphere (frozen polar and mountain regions). This would help protect the ecosystems and people that rely on them.

The report entailed two years of work by 104 authors and review editors from 36 countries, who assessed nearly 7,000 scientific papers and responded to more than 30,000 review comments.

The picture is worse than we thought

Mountain glaciers and polar ice sheets are shrinking and, together with expansion of the warming ocean, are contributing to an increasing rate of sea level rise.

During the last century, global sea levels rose about 15cm. Seas are now rising more than twice as fast – 3.6mm per year – and accelerating, the report shows.

The IPCC’s projections are more dire than in its 2014 oceans report. It has revised upwards by 10% the effect of the melting Antarctic ice sheet on sea level rise by 2100. Antarctica appears to be changing more rapidly than was thought possible even five years ago, and further work is needed to understand just how quickly ice will be lost from Antarctica in future.

Key components and changes of the ocean and cryosphere, and their linkages in the Earth system.
IPCC, 2019

If you live near the Australian coast, change is coming

By 2050, more than one billion of the world’s people will live on coastal land less than 10 metres above sea level. They will be exposed to combinations of sea level rise, extreme winds, waves, storm surges and flooding from intensified storms and tropical cyclones.

Many of Australia’s coastal cities and communities can expect to experience what was previously a once-in-a-century extreme coastal flooding event at least once every year by the middle of this century.

Our island neighbours in Indonesia and the Pacific will also be hit hard. The report warns that some island nations are likely to become uninhabitable – although the extent of this is hard to assess accurately.

Some change is inevitable and we will have to adapt. But the report also delivered a strong message about the choices that still remain. In the case of extreme sea level events around Australia, we believe a marked global reduction in greenhouse as emissions would buy us more than 10 years of extra time, in some places, to protect our coastal communities and infrastructure from the rising ocean.

Indonesian residents wade through flood water in Jakarta. The northwestern part of Jakarta is rapidly sinking.
MAST IRHAM/EPA

More frequent extreme events are often occurring at the same time or in quick succession. Tasmania’s summer of 2015-16 is a good example. The state experienced record-breaking drought which worsened the fire threat in the highlands. An unprecedented marine heatwave along the east coast damaged kelp forests and caused disease and death of shellfish, and the state’s northeast suffered severe flooding.

This string of events stretched emergency services, energy supplies and the aquaculture and manufacturing industries. The total economic cost to the state government was an estimated A$445 million. The impacts on the food, energy and manufacturing sectors cut Tasmania’s anticipated economic growth by about half.

Reefs and fish stocks are suffering

The ocean has taken a huge hit from climate change – taking up heat, absorbing carbon dioxide that makes the water more acidic, and losing oxygen. It will bring ocean conditions unlike anything we have seen before.

Marine ecosystems and fisheries around the world are under pressure from this barrage of stressors. Overall, the fisheries potential around Australia’s coasts is expected to decline during this century.

Heat build-up in the surface ocean has already triggered a marked rise in the intensity, frequency and duration of marine heatwaves. Ocean heatwaves are expected to become between four and ten times more common this century, depending on how rapidly global warming continues.

The report said coral reefs, including the Great Barrier Reef, are already at very high risk from climate change and are expected to suffer significant losses and local extinctions. This would occur even if global warming is limited to 1.5℃ – a threshold the world is set to overshoot by a wide margin.




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Extreme weather caused by climate change has damaged 45% of Australia’s coastal habitat


Our choices now are critical for the future

This report reinforces the findings of earlier reports on the importance of limiting global warming warming to 1.5℃ if we are to avoid major impacts on the land, the ocean and frozen areas.

Even if we act now to drastically reduce greenhouse gas emissions, some damage is already locked in and our ocean and frozen regions will continue to change for decades to centuries to come.

Mertz Glacier in east Antarctica. IPCC scientists say the expected effect of melting Antarctic ice on sea level rise is worse than projected five years ago.
Australian Antarctic Division

In Australia, we will need to adapt our coastal cities and communities to unavoidable sea level rise. There are a range of possible options, from building barriers to planned relocation, to protecting the coral reefs and mangroves that provide natural coastal defences.

But if we want to give adaptation the best chance of working, the clear message of this new report is that we need to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as quickly as possible.The Conversation

Jess Melbourne-Thomas, Transdisciplinary Researcher & Knowledge Broker, CSIRO; Kathleen McInnes, Senior research scientist, CSIRO; Nathan Bindoff, Professor of Physical Oceanography, Institute for Marine and Antarctic Studies, University of Tasmania, and Nerilie Abram, ARC Future Fellow, Research School of Earth Sciences; Chief Investigator for the ARC Centre of Excellence for Climate Extremes, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

The air above Antarctica is suddenly getting warmer – here’s what it means for Australia



Antarctic winds have a huge effect on weather in other places.
NASA Goddard Space Flight Center/Flickr, CC BY-SA

Harry Hendon, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Eun-Pa Lim, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Griffith Young, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

Record warm temperatures above Antarctica over the coming weeks are likely to bring above-average spring temperatures and below-average rainfall across large parts of New South Wales and southern Queensland.

The warming began in the last week of August, when temperatures in the stratosphere high above the South Pole began rapidly heating in a phenomenon called “sudden stratospheric warming”.




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In the coming weeks the warming is forecast to intensify, and its effects will extend downward to Earth’s surface, affecting much of eastern Australia over the coming months.

The Bureau of Meteorology is predicting the strongest Antarctic warming on record, likely to exceed the previous record of September 2002.

(Left) Observation of September 2002 stratospheric warming compared to (right) 2019 forecast for September.
The forecast for 2019 was provided by the Australian Bureau of Meteorology and was initialised on August 30, 2019.

What’s going on?

Every winter, westerly winds – often up to 200km per hour – develop in the stratosphere high above the South Pole and circle the polar region. The winds develop as a result of the difference in temperature over the pole (where there is no sunlight) and the Southern Ocean (where the sun still shines).

As the sun shifts southward during spring, the polar region starts to warm. This warming causes the stratospheric vortex and associated westerly winds to gradually weaken over the period of a few months.

However, in some years this breakdown can happen faster than usual. Waves of air from the lower atmosphere (from large weather systems or flow over mountains) warm the stratosphere above the South Pole, and weaken or “mix” the high-speed westerly winds.

Very rarely, if the waves are strong enough they can rapidly break down the polar vortex, actually reversing the direction of the winds so they become easterly. This is the technical definition of “sudden stratospheric warming.”

Although we have seen plenty of weak or moderate variations in the polar vortex over the past 60 years, the only other true sudden stratospheric warming event in the Southern Hemisphere was in September 2002.

In contrast, their northern counterpart occurs every other year or so during late winter of the Northern Hemisphere because of stronger and more variable tropospheric wave activity.

What can Australia expect?

Impacts from this stratospheric warming are likely to reach Earth’s surface in the next month and possibly extend through to January.

Apart from warming the Antarctic region, the most notable effect will be a shift of the Southern Ocean westerly winds towards the Equator.

For regions directly in the path of the strongest westerlies, which includes western Tasmania, New Zealand’s South Island, and Patagonia in South America, this generally results in more storminess and rainfall, and colder temperatures.

But for subtropical Australia, which largely sits north of the main belt of westerlies, the shift results in reduced rainfall, clearer skies, and warmer temperatures.

Past stratospheric warming events and associated wind changes have had their strongest effects in NSW and southern Queensland, where springtime temperatures increased, rainfall decreased and heatwaves and fire risk rose.

The influence of the stratospheric warming has been captured by the Bureau’s climate outlooks, along with the influence of other major climate drivers such as the current positive Indian Ocean Dipole, leading to a hot and dry outlook for spring.

Anomalous Australian climate conditions during the nine most significant polar vortex weakening years (1979, 1988, 2000, 2002, 2004, 2005, 2012, 2013, 2016) on both maximum and minimum temperatures, and rainfall for October-November, as compared to all other years between 1979-2016.
Bureau of Meteorology

Effects on the ozone hole and Antarctic sea ice

One positive note of sudden stratospheric warming is the reduction – or even absence altogether – of the spring Antarctic ozone hole. This is for two reasons.

First, the rapid rise of temperatures in the upper atmosphere means the super cold polar stratospheric ice clouds, which are vital for the chemical process that destroys ozone, may not even form.

Secondly, the disrupted winds carry more ozone-rich air from the tropics to the polar region, helping repair the ozone hole.

We also expect an enhanced decline in Antarctic sea ice between October and January, particularly in the eastern Ross Sea and western Amundsen Sea, as more warm water moves towards the poles due to the weaker westerly winds.




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Thanks to improvements in modelling and the Bureau’s new supercomputer, these types of events can be forecast better than ever before. Compared to 2002, when we didn’t know much about the event until after it had happened, this time we’ve had almost three weeks’ notice that a very strong warming event was coming. We also know much more about the process that has been set in train, that will affect our weather over the next one to four months.The Conversation

Harry Hendon, Senior Principal Research Scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Andrew B. Watkins, Manager of Long-range Forecast Services, Australian Bureau of Meteorology; Eun-Pa Lim, Senior research scientist, Australian Bureau of Meteorology, and Griffith Young, Senior IT Officer, Australian Bureau of Meteorology

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

New research shows that Antarctica’s largest floating ice shelf is highly sensitive to warming of the ocean



Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated over a thousand kilometres in the Ross Sea region, more than any other region on the continent.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Dan Lowry, Victoria University of Wellington

Scientists have long been concerned about the potential collapse of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet and its contribution to global sea level rise. Much of West Antarctica’s ice lies below sea level, and warming ocean temperatures may lead to runaway ice sheet retreat.

This process, called marine ice sheet instability, has already been observed along parts of the Amundsen Sea region, where warming of the ocean has led to melting underneath the floating ice shelves that fringe the continent. As these ice shelves thin, the ice grounded on land flows more rapidly into the ocean and raises the sea level.

Although the Amundsen Sea region has shown the most rapid changes to date, more ice actually drains from West Antarctica via the Ross Ice Shelf than any other area. How this ice sheet responds to climate change in the Ross Sea region is therefore a key factor in Antarctica’s contribution to global sea level rise in the future.

Periods of past ice sheet retreat can give us insights into how sensitive the Ross Sea region is to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Our research, published today, argues that ocean warming was a key driver of glacial retreat since the last ice age in the Ross Sea. This suggests that the Ross Ice Shelf is highly sensitive to changes in the ocean.




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History of the Ross Sea

Since the last ice age, the ice sheet retreated more than 1,000km in the Ross Sea region – more than any other region on the continent. But there is little consensus among the scientific community about how much climate and the ocean have contributed to this retreat.

Much of what we know about the past ice sheet retreat in the Ross Sea comes from rock samples found in the Transantarctic Mountains. Dating techniques allow scientists to determine when these rocks were exposed to the surface as the ice around them retreated. These rock samples, which were collected far from where the initial ice retreat took place, have generally led to interpretations in which the ice sheet retreat happened much later than, and independently of, the rise in air and ocean temperatures following the last ice age.

But radiocarbon ages from sediments in the Ross Sea suggest an earlier retreat, more in line with when climate began to warm from the last ice age.

An iceberg floating in the Ross Sea – an area that is sensitive to warming in the ocean.
Rich Jones, CC BY-ND

Using models to understand the past

To investigate how sensitive this region was to past changes, we developed a regional model of the Antarctic ice sheet. The model works by simulating the physics of the ice sheet and its response to changes in ocean and air temperatures. The simulations are then compared to geological records to check accuracy.

Our main findings are that warming of the ocean and atmosphere were the main causes of the major glacial retreat that took place in the Ross Sea region since the last ice age. But the dominance of these two controls in influencing the ice sheet evolved through time. Although air temperatures influenced the timing of the initial ice sheet retreat, ocean warming became the main driver due to melting of the Ross Ice Shelf from below, similar to what is currently observed in the Amundsen Sea.

The model also identifies key areas of uncertainty of past ice sheet behaviour. Obtaining sediment and rock samples and oceanographic data would help to improve modelling capabilities. The Siple Coast region of the Ross Ice Shelf is especially sensitive to changes in melt rates at the base of the ice shelf, and is therefore a critical region to sample.




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Implications for the future

Understanding processes that were important in the past allows us to improve and validate our model, which in turn gives us confidence in our future projections. Through its history, the ice sheet in the Ross Sea has been sensitive to changes in ocean and air temperatures. Currently, ocean warming underneath the Ross Ice Shelf is the main concern, given its potential to cause melting from below.

Challenges remain in determining exactly how ocean temperatures will change underneath the Ross Ice Shelf in the coming decades. This will depend on changes to patterns of ocean circulation, with complex interactions and feedback between sea ice, surface winds and melt water from the ice sheet.

Given the sensitivity of ice shelves to ocean warming, we need an integrated modelling approach that can accurately reproduce both the ocean circulation and dynamics of the ice sheet. But the computational cost is high.

Ultimately, these integrated projections of the Southern Ocean and Antarctic ice sheet will help policymakers and communities to develop meaningful adaptation strategies for cities and coastal infrastructure exposed to the risk of rising seas.The Conversation

Dan Lowry, PhD candidate, Victoria University of Wellington

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Warming oceans are changing Australia’s fishing industry



File 20180710 122253 9yj55v.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Ocean fish are changing where they live due to climate change.
Annie spratt/Unsplash, CC BY-SA

Alistair Hobday, CSIRO; Beth Fulton, CSIRO, and Gretta Pecl, University of Tasmania

A new United Nations report on fisheries and climate change shows that Australian marine systems are undergoing rapid environmental change, with some of the largest climate-driven changes in the Southern Hemisphere.

Reports from around the world have found that many fish species are changing their distribution. This movement threatens to disrupt fishing as we know it.

While rapid change is predicted to continue, researchers and managers are working with fishers to ensure a sustainable industry.




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Lessons from across the world

Large climate-driven changes in species distribution and abundance are evident around the world. While some species will increase, global models project declining seafood stocks in tropical regions, where people can least afford alternative foods.

The global concern for seafood changes led the UN Food and Agriculture Organisation (FAO) to commission a new report on the impacts of climate change on fisheries and aquaculture. More than 90 experts from some 20 countries contributed, including us.

The report describes many examples of climate-related change. For instance, the northern movement of European mackerel into Icelandic waters has led to conflict with more southerly fishing states, and apparently contributed to Iceland’s exit from negotiations over its prospective European Union membership.




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Changes in fish abundance and behaviour can lead to conflicts in harvesting, as occurred in the Maine lobster fishery. Indirect effects of climate change, such as disease outbreaks and algal blooms, have already temporarily closed fisheries in several countries, including the United States and Australia.

All these changes in turn impact the people who depend on fish for food and livelihoods.

Climate change and fisheries in Australia

The Australian chapter summarises the rapid ocean change in our region. Waters off southeastern and southwestern Australia are particular warming hotspots. Even our tropical oceans are warming almost twice as fast as the global average.




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More than 100 Australian marine species have already begun to shift their distributions southwards. Marine heatwaves and other extreme events have harmed Australia’s seagrass, kelp forests, mangroves and coral reefs. Australia’s marine ecosystems and commercial fisheries are clearly already being affected by climate change.

Summary of recent climate-related marine impacts in Australia. Warming on both coasts is also moving species southwards.
Author provided

In the Australian FAO chapter, we present information from climate sensitivity analysis and ecosystem models to help managers and fishers prepare for change.

We need to preparing climate-ready fisheries, to minimise negative impacts and to make the most of new opportunities that arise.

Experts from around Australia have rated the sensitivity of more than 100 fished species to climate change, based on their life-history traits. They found that 70% of assessed species have moderate to high sensitivity. As a group, invertebrates are the most sensitive, and pelagic fishes (that live in the open ocean sea) the least.

A range of ecosystem models have also been used to explore how future climate change will impact Australia’s fisheries over the next 40 years. While results varied around Australia, a common projection was that ecosystem production will become more variable.

As fish abundance and distribution changes, predation and competition within food webs will be affected. New food webs may form, changing ecosystems in unexpected ways. In some regions (such as southeastern Australia) the ecosystem may eventually shift into a new state that is quite different to today.

How can Australian fisheries respond?

Our ecosystem models indicate that sustainable fisheries are possible, if we’re prepared to make some changes. This finding builds on Australia’s strong record in fisheries management, supported by robust science, which positions it well to cope with the impacts of climate change. Fortunately, less than 15% of Australia’s assessed fisheries are overfished, with an improving trend.

We have identified several actions that can help fisheries adapt to climate change:

  • Management plans need to prioritise the most sensitive species and fisheries, and take the easiest actions first, such as changing the timing or location of operations to match changing conditions.



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  • As ecosystem changes span state and national boundaries, greater coordination is needed across all Australian jurisdictions, and between all the users of the marine environment. For example, policy must be developed to deal with fixed fishing zones when species distribution changes.

  • Fisheries policy, management and assessment methods need to prepare for both long-term changes and extreme events. Australian fisheries have already shifted to more conservative targets which have provided for increased ecological resilience. Additional quota changes may be needed if stock productivity changes.

  • In areas where climate is changing rapidly, agile management responses will be required so that action can be taken quickly and adjusted when new information becomes available.

  • Ultimately, we may need to target new species. This means that Australians will have to adapt to buying (and cooking) new types of fish.




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The ConversationResearchers from a range of organisations and agencies around Australia are now tackling these issues, in partnership with the fishing industry, to ensure that coastal towns with vibrant commercial fishing and aquaculture businesses continue to provide sustainable seafood.

Alistair Hobday, Senior Principal Research Scientist – Oceans and Atmosphere, CSIRO; Beth Fulton, CSIRO Research Group Leader Ecosystem Modelling and Risk Assessment, CSIRO, and Gretta Pecl, Professor, ARC Future Fellow & Editor in Chief (Reviews in Fish Biology & Fisheries), University of Tasmania

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Citizen scientist scuba divers shed light on the impact of warming oceans on marine life



File 20171019 1045 3eh0e1.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
A volunteer diver surveys marine life at Lord Howe Island.
Rick Stuart-Smith/Reef Life Survey, Author provided

Madeleine De Gabriele, The Conversation

Rising ocean temperatures may result in worldwide change for shallow reef ecosystems, according to research published yesterday in Science Advances.

The study, based on thousands of surveys carried out by volunteer scuba divers, gives new insights into the relationship of fish numbers to water temperatures – suggesting that warmer oceans may drive fish to significantly expand their habitat, displacing other sea creatures.

Citizen science

The study draws from Reef Life Survey, a 10-year citizen science project that trains volunteer scuba divers to survey marine plants and animals. Over the past ten years, more than 200 divers have surveyed 2,406 ocean sites in 44 countries, creating a uniquely comprehensive data set on ocean life.

Reef Life Survey takes volunteers on surveying expeditions at hard-to-reach coral reefs around the world.
Rick Stuart-Smith/Reef Life Survey, Author provided

Lead author Professor Graham Edgar, who founded Reef Life Survey, said the unprecedented scope of their survey allowed them to investigate global patterns in marine life. The abundance of life in warm regions (such as tropical rainforests and coral reefs) has long intrigued naturalists. At least 30 theories have been put forward, but most studies have been based on relatively limited surveys restricted to a single continent or group of species.

By tapping into the recreational scuba diving community, Reef Life Survey has vastly increased the amount of information researchers have to work with. Professor Edgar and his colleagues provide one-on-one training to volunteers, teaching them how to carry out comprehensive scans of plants and animals in specific areas.

Dr Adriana Vergés, a researcher at the University of New South Wales specialising in the impact of climate change on ocean ecosystems, said that the Reef Life Survey has already substantially improved our understanding of the marine environment.

“For example, Reef Life Survey data has greatly contributed to our understanding of the factors that determine the effectiveness of effectiveness of marine-protected areas worldwide. The team have made all their data publicly available and more and more research is increasingly making use of it to answer research questions,” she said.

Some of the divers have been working with Reef Life Survey for a decade, although others participate when they can. One volunteer, according to Professor Edgar, was so inspired by the project that he began a doctorate in marine biology (he graduated this year).

There’s a strong link between fish numbers and water warmth, which means warming oceans are likely to change global fish distribution.
Rick Stuart-Smith/Reef Life Survey, Author provided

Warming oceans means fish on the move

One of the important insights delivered by the Reef Life Survey datatbase is the relationship between water temperature and the ratio of fish to invertebrates in an ecosystem. Essentially, the warmer the water, the more fish. Conversely, colder waters contain more invertebrates like lobster, crabs and shrimp.

Professor Stewart Frusher, director of the Centre for Marine Socioecology at the University of Tasmania (and a former colleague of Professor Edgar) told The Conversation that he believes we will see wide-scale changes in fish distribution as climate change warms the oceans.

“Species are moving into either deeper water or towards the poles. We also know that not all species are moving at the same rate, and thus new mixtures of ecosystems will occur, with the fast-moving species of one ecosystem mixing with the slower moving of another,” he said.

As species migrate or expand into newly warmed waters, according to Professor Frusher, they will compete with and prey on the species already living in that area. And while it’s uncertain exactly how disruptive this will be, we do know that small ecosystem changes can rapidly lead to larger-scale impacts.

In order to predict and manage these global changes, scientists need reliable and detailed world-wide data. Professor Frusher said that, with research funding declining, scientists do not have the resources to monitor at the scales required.

The Conversation“Well-developed citizen science programs fill an important niche for improving our understanding of how the earth is responding to change,” he said.

Madeleine De Gabriele, Deputy Editor: Energy + Environment, The Conversation

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

Warming seas will set marine life on the move, with some good news among the bad


David Schoeman, University of the Sunshine Coast and Jorge García Molinos, Scottish Association for Marine Science

How will climate change affect life in the oceans? In research to be published in Nature Climate Change* we, among several other authors, show that the answer is likely good and bad.

Our study models how species might move in response to different future climate scenarios. The good news is that overall, thanks to species migrations, most places will end up with greater numbers of species. According to our models, climate change is unlikely to directly cause extinction through warming waters for most species, except for those that can’t move or have very narrow thermal tolerances.

The bad news is that there are a few very special places that will lose species – particularly the spectacular ocean ecosystems of what’s known as the Coral Triangle, the epicentre of global marine biodiversity.

First, the good news

As ocean temperatures increase, marine life will likely move towards the poles – animals and plants will expand their ranges. We can already see this happening. In Australia, tropical species of fish are turning up in northern New South Wales.

We wanted to know how this would affect the overall numbers of animals and plants in the oceans – marine biodiversity – and the distinctive communities they comprise. While many things affect where marine life lives – habitat, competition, salinity – most species are affected fundamentally by temperature.

Using temperature to find out where species might move allowed us to look at an unprecedented number of species – nearly 13,000. These included animals and plants as diverse as fish, corals, jellies, snails, clams, crabs, shrimps and seaweeds.

We looked at two different climate scenarios, business as usual (known as RCP8.5) leading to warming of around 2.5ºC by 2100, and a scenario with medium mitigation (RCP4.5) leading to warming of around 1ºC over the same period.

Our model shows how fast different temperature zones will move and to where, using a measure known as “climate velocity”. This is a good way of predicting where species could move because it traces pathways connected by climate.

We should emphasise that our study shows where species could move. Our projections don’t necessarily mean that they will move, nor that they will successfully establish themselves at the locations where they arrive. That depends on a variety of factors, including their specific habitat requirements and how species interact with each other. But studies of invasive species suggest that species that can move will tend to do so.

Overall we found that biodiversity of the oceans will likely increase at local scales. As a result, we anticipate that marine ecosystems will become more similar. For instance, today on the east Australian coast, the types of species found along the central Queensland coast are quite different from those found in central New South Wales. As sea temperatures warm, we expect those boundaries to gradually break down, leading to what we call a “smearing” of biodiversity.

Bad news for the tropics

There are several theories as to why there are so many species in the tropics, and especially the Coral Triangle. Irrespective, we know that this area supports over 500 species of reef-forming corals, together with a massive diversity of fish, including whale sharks, and six of the seven extant species of sea turtles; it is also visited by many species of whales and dolphins. This concentration of marine biodiversity contributes significantly to livelihoods of the region’s 120 million or so human inhabitants.

Species living in tropical seas already live close to their thermal optimum. As temperatures increase, they will exceed the upper thermal limits of some species. When this happens, some species will adapt, for instance by seeking out micro-refuges, such as small patches of cool water caused by upwelling, or they might resort to living in deeper waters, if the water is clear enough.

But in the long term, most species will need to move. The reason we expect marine biodiversity to decrease in the tropics with warming is that there is no place warmer to act as a source of new species to replace those species moving out.

More than 5,000 of the 13,000 species we looked at in our study are found in the coral triangle. According to our projections, approximately 500 to 1,000 of these species will leave the region thanks to warming waters under RCP4.5 and RCP8.5, respectively.

What can we do?

Our modelling shows that the loss of marine life is strongly related to how much we mitigate climate change.

Even if we take only intermediate levels of action (under scenario RCP4.5), we can minimise the damage. But we can’t eliminate it entirely: under the emission-stabilisation RCP4.5 scenario we anticipate that the Coral Triangle will lose roughly half as many species as under the business-as-usual RCP8.5 scenario.

We can also look at how we manage the world’s oceans. Some regions, such as the northeast Atlantic and eastern Mediterranean, have seen greater impacts from people than others, and some of these overlap with regions likely to be affected by climate change.

Where there is overlap, we can look at alleviating the damage caused by people, such as pollution of coastal waters, or minimising the pressure on key species, for example by reducing fishing pressure on them.

In other areas, such as the poles, there is low human impact, but we project substantial changes in biodiversity. From a conservation perspective, we want representative sections of these areas to remain free from additional human pressure, for instance by using regulation to control future development.

And because climate change doesn’t respect national boundaries, all of these efforts will require international cooperation.

Only in that way will we ensure the seas remain rich and healthy in the future.

We acknowledge the contributions of all co-authors: Jorge Garcia Molinos, Benjamin S. Halpern, David S. Schoeman, Christopher J. Brown, Wolfgang Kiessling, Pippa J. Moore, John M. Pandolfi, Elvira S. Poloczanska, Anthony J. Richardson and Michael T. Burrows

*Update August 25: the paper on which this article is based has not yet been published. The article will be updated when the link is available.

The Conversation

David Schoeman is Associate professor, Biostatistics at University of the Sunshine Coast and Jorge García Molinos is Research Associate Climate Change Ecology at Scottish Association for Marine Science

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.