The Safina Center

Pelican and reflectionPelican and reflectionPhoto taken by: Carl Safina

Ocean Warming

Carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels is not only changing the oceans’ chemistry and warming the atmosphere, it is also warming the oceans.

There’s a third more carbon dioxide in the air than at the start of the Industrial Revolution.  The carbon acts like insulation in the atmosphere, or like glass in a greenhouse — that’s why it’s called a greenhouse gas – and it is warming the air, which warms the seas.

The current carbon dioxide concentration is higher than it has been for several million years and rising 100 times faster than any time in the past 650,000 years.  Warmer ocean water is already having dramatic effects.

Some corals bleach and die when water gets too warm for too long.  Bleaching means corals eject algae cells that live inside them and provide them with food and often color.

What happens to reefs will affect the hundreds of millions of people worldwide who depend on reefs for food and income.

Ocean warming and higher air temperatures also melt polar ice.  As polar ice melts, animals that need ice suffer.  Polar bears, some seals and many penguins require ice to live.  At the base of the Antarctic food web, shrimp-like krill require ice and they are vital food sources for many Antarctic whales, seals, seabirds, and fishes.

Melting land-ice, such as glaciers, raises sea levels.  (Sea ice is already displacing all the water it will displace, and like ice cubes in a drink, sea ice does not raise sea level when it melts.)  Meanwhile, as seawater warms it expands a little, also raising sea levels.

Global sea level rise threatens coastal habitat–both marine environments and human settlements.  Because such a large proportion of people live within 50 miles of a coast, it’s estimated that over 600 million people—roughly one in ten people on Earth, will be directly affected by sea level rise.

Entire island nations in the South Pacific may disappear beneath the waves as the ocean envelops them.  Rising sea levels threaten habitats such as coral reefs and coastal mangroves, as well as low islands relied upon by many millions of breeding seabirds.

The solution: We need an energy economy based on renewable energy, especially energy sources that do not have to be burned, such as the power of the sun, wind, tides, and the heat of the Earth—the power that drives the whole planet.

3 things you can do to curb ocean warming:

1. Conserve energy at home and at work.
2. Switch to renewable energy whenever possible.
3. Change your driving habits to conserve fuel – walk, ride a bike or carpool.

Other great ways you can make a difference.


Warming 101 – Carl’s Blog
Baked Alaska – Carl’s Blog
Global Warming – National Wildlife Foundation
Coral Reef Bleaching Affects Fish Communities – Science Daily

Coral Reef Bleaching Impacts – Coral Reef Resilience
Global Climate Change & Krill – Antarctic Krill Conservation Project
Polar Bear Habitat
2010 Warmest Year on Record – USA Today


Related Videos:

Aquarius Ocean Circulation, NASA

Until now, researchers did not have a full set of data on ocean salinity and how it impacts climate change.

Climate Change Affects Everything, State of the World’s Oceans

Climate change affects everything. All the organisms that live in the ocean are used to being bathed in it, are used to its temperature, are used to where the ocean currents flow and all those things change with global climate change.

Coral Bleaching Firsthand, Penn State Research

Iliana Baums, an assistant professor of biology at Penn State, dons scuba gear for work. She studies coral reef ecosystems, the “forests of the oceans,” diverse habitats that are vital to many species of ocean life. Warming ocean temperatures disrupt that ecosystem and cause episodes of coral bleaching,