The ocean is home to some of the world’s most astounding creatures, ecosystems and phenomena. From the breathtaking seascapes of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef to the haunting backdrop of the polar icecaps, the ocean supports a staggeringly high level of biodiversity. This biodiversity is what sustains us; from shellfish industries that support coastal economies to salmon runs that bring nutrients to our forests, to half of the oxygen we need to survive. As vast and complex as this system is, it is hard to imagine the collapse of this important ecosystem that we depend so heavily on. And yet, this is the future that we face if action isn’t taken to combat the threats posed by climate change to our ocean’s health today.
As excess carbon is released and trapped in the atmosphere, it creates a layer of insulation that acts like a blanket trapping in heat from the sun that would otherwise be released. This is known as the “Greenhouse Effect”. Although this process occurs naturally to regulate the Earth’s climate, human activities have caused a significant increase in the amount of carbon being released into the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution. This increase in emissions has amplified the natural function of the Greenhouse Effect, leading to global climate change and resulting in some major consequences for the ocean. Rising sea level, increasing surface temperatures and ocean acidification are shaping our oceans in ways that most species are unable to adapt to. While it may seem like some faraway threat, the ultimate losers in the destruction of the planet’s oceans are really humans. And not our grandchildren’s grandchildren, but those of us who are alive today.
Although the prognosis for an ocean facing the effects of climate change is dire, there is something that we can do to fight back against the loss of ocean biodiversity. By safeguarding habitats and ecosystems we can maintain or recover populations, thereby increasing the resilience of ecosystems. “Resilience” refers to an ecosystem’s ability to recover from stress while maintaining its original functions(2). With the proper design, a system of marine protected areas (MPAs) can take into account climate change and also increase ecosystem resilience. This requires a broad, system-wide approach to marine protection, one that takes all aspects of an ecosystem into account.
There are several key components of a protected area that can increase its resilience to climate change. Although smaller protected areas may be easier to enforce, larger MPAs can encompass more habitat, and in turn more species(3). This also allows for the protection of more ecosystem services and functions that are necessary for the ocean as a whole to survive. Protected area managers are also turning to indicators such as the retention of fish larvae and radiation levels from the sun to determine where and how to protect essential fish habitat.
However, the most important component of a resilient MPA is its anticipation of shifting species ranges once temperatures do change. As sea surface temperatures increase, species will move northward toward cooler waters. MPA networks can be designed to create corridors that allow for the safe movement of organisms from one area of the ocean to another, as well as ensure that they will find refuge in their new homes. These networks will be key to the retention of biodiversity in our changing oceans. Fortunately, there are already some strong efforts underway to protect large areas of our oceans! Large MPAs in Palau, Chile and the Pitcairn Islands were announced just last year. While this progress represents a major step toward reaching a UN Sustainable Development Goal of conserving 10% of the world’s oceans by 2020, recent studies have shown that the global MPA network in place today does not yet adequately protect our oceans’ biodiversity(1). With the threat of climate change looming overhead, the implementation of MPA networks that effectively protect this biodiversity is more urgent than ever.
The Global Ocean Refuge System (GLORES) aims to secure a network of protection for at least 20% of the world’s oceans in each biogeographic region by 2030. As climate change progresses, our highest priority will be to identify and protect areas around the world that currently— and may in the future— serve as refuges for marine organisms in the face of climate change(4). By creating incentives for governments and decision-makers to protect critical habitats, GLORES will ensure that the global MPA network will encompass more of our oceans’ biodiversity. This initiative is our best bet for increasing the resilience of marine ecosystems, and our own survival. To learn more about where MPA efforts are already under way and how you can help, visit mpatlas.org/campaigns.
The world is changing- will we win the fight to save our oceans?
(1) Klein, C. et al. (2015). Shortfalls in the global protected area network at representing marine biodiversity. Nature: Scientific Reports. doi:10.1038/srep17539
(2) Lawler, J. (2009). Climate Change Adaptation Strategies for Resource Management and Conservation Planning. The Year in Ecology and Conservation Biology, 11621(1), 79-98. <http://onlinelibrary.wiley.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/doi/0.1111/j.1749-6632.2009.04147.x/full>
(3) McLeod, E. et al. (2009). Designing marine protected area networks to address the impacts of climate change. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. 7(7), 362-370 <http://www.jstor.org/stable/27809090.>
(4) Thresher, R., & Guinotte, J. et al. (2015). Options for managing impacts of climate change on a deep-sea community. Nature: Climate Change. doi:10.1038/nclimate2611
Cover photo courtesy of our GLORES partner photographer Brian Skerry