Climate change and the ocean

Climate change has serious, long-term, and far-reaching negative consequences for our ocean.

Burning fossil fuels, raising livestock, and clearing forests are just three examples of human activities that release billions of tons of CO2 and other heat-trapping gases into our atmosphere every year, making our planet warmer. The ocean has buffered us from the worst impacts of climate change—absorbing about 25 percent of the excess CO2 and more than 90 percent of the excess heat. But these climate services come at a significant cost for marine ecosystems and result in harmful impacts including:

  • Increasing ocean temperature: bleaches coral reefs, shifts where fish can live, and decreases ocean wildlife,
  • Ocean acidification: causes a depletion of carbonate ions, which are critical for shell-forming animals like oysters, crabs, and shrimp,
  • Decreasing oxygen: creates areas that suffocate marine animals, shrinks their habitats, and forces them to swim into places where they are more vulnerable to predators,
  • More intense tropical storms and higher sea level: puts coastal communities in harm’s way and destroys coastal wetland habitats which include mangroves and salt marshes.

These and other negative impacts are documented and summarized in the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climatereleased on September 25, 2019, in Monaco. It is the first IPCC report to focus specifically on the marine realm.

In order to protect the ocean and slow the impacts of climate change, the science indicates we need to take action on two fronts:

  • Cut net carbon dioxide emissions to zero by 2050;
  • Increase ocean health—by reducing pollution, overfishing and safeguarding critical marine and coastal habitats.

MBARI climate change research

MBARI’s technical achievements and knowledge are transforming climate change research with novel methods and technologies. Several MBARI research projects have tackled issues related to climate change, seeking to understand how marine life responds to a changing ocean.

Tracking carbon from the ocean surface into the depths

Nov 26, 2018 – Scientists know that the ocean is taking up a lot of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Marine chemist Andrea Fassbender is bringing this process into focus by studying how carbon moves between the atmosphere, upper ocean, and deep sea.

Testing how ocean change affects abalone

July 16, 2018 – A team of MBARI scientists is monitoring abalones under carefully controlled environmental conditions for two months to learn more about how these animals will fare in future ocean conditions.

Making the case for ocean conservation

June 8, 2018 – Bringing to light an urgent message of ocean conservation to the public, leaders of the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute and Monterey Bay Aquarium wrote a column that was published in the New York Times today.

The impact of the Southern Ocean on climate

Mar 17, 2016 - MBARI Scientist Ken Johnson and his Chemical Sensors Group are part of a large collaborative effort to place sensors in the Southern Ocean to monitor changing conditions. The video explains the technology used in this project.

Ocean acidification, warming, deoxygenation

Carbon dioxide emissions to the atmosphere have raised atmospheric CO2 levels far beyond the range of variation known to occur for the past million years, and perhaps as much as 30 million years.
pH probes in MBARI test tank

MBARI researchers reach final stage of Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE

Apr 29, 2015 - A team including two MBARI researchers has been selected for the final stage of a million-dollar ocean technology competition. The Wendy Schmidt Ocean Health XPRIZE has offered two prizes of $1 million each to science and engineering teams from around the world to create a pH sensor that accurately and affordably measures ocean acidification.

Ocean acidification studies in Antarctica

Jan 14, 2015 - Ocean acidification poses a threat to the life and diversity of marine ecosystems. MBARI scientists and engineers have designed a sophisticated tool for studying the effects of ocean acidification that can be applied to various marine environments, from shallow-water kelp forests to the deep sea.

Big changes in the Sargasso Sea

Sept 23, 2014 – Over one thousand miles wide and three thousand miles long, the Sargasso Sea occupies almost two thirds of the North Atlantic Ocean. Within the sea, circling ocean currents accumulate mats of Sargassum seaweed that shelter a surprising variety of fishes, snails, crabs, and other small animals.

Deep-sea ecosystems affected by climate change

Based on long-term studies of two such areas, a new paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) shows that animal communities on the abyssal seafloor are affected in a variety of ways by climate change.

“Environmental conditions throughout the world ocean are changing in response to fossil fuel emissions and greenhouse warming in the atmosphere.”

—Scientist Jim Barry