Climate change is causing the oceans to warm roughly 40% faster than a previous United Nations’ analysis had estimated, a rate that could have dire consequences for the livelihoods of people around the world in the years ahead, according to the New York Times.
The research, published Thursday in the journal Science, raises alarms for the millions of people who depend on the oceans for food and economic security, and live in areas that are vulnerable to sea level rise and stronger storm surges.
The oceans have acted as the primary bulwark against warming global temperatures, absorbing 93% of the excess heat trapped in the global atmosphere by greenhouse gas emissions produced by human activity.
As a result, the oceans have been affected more severely than land environments in recent decades and scientists have only begun to understand the full scope of these changes in the past few years.
Marine life is highly susceptible to temperature change and the record-breaking marine heat waves that have happened in recent years have unraveled ecosystems that took thousands of years to form.
As these ecosystems fragment and disappear, the human systems that depend on them are becoming endangered.
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The oceans generate an estimated $1.5 trillion in economic value each year and more than 60 million people to work in fisheries and aquaculture, according to the World Bank. The fish caught annually provides essential nutrition to billions of people around the world, especially those living in poverty.
But this vast network of economic activity could be undermined as the oceans continue to warm.
Higher temperatures disrupt marine life in a number of ways.
Most urgently, coral reefs are dying from heat stress, destroying vast webs of life in the process, according to UNESCO.
Reefs harbor thousands of marine creatures, provide natural defenses for coastal communities from storm surges, offer abundant fishing opportunities that provide critical nutrition to people, and generate billions in tourism revenue annually.
Elsewhere, higher temperatures are causing fish to migrate to new locations, limiting their historic ranges and displacing other fish as a result. The United Nations fears that these shifting migratory patterns will result in conflicts as national fishing boundaries become outdated.
For example, urchins increased 60-fold off the coast of California as a “blob” of hot water moved into the area, and proceeded to destroy magnificent kelp forests that support local economies.
On top of warming temperatures, the oceans are being hollowed of life by overfishing, plastic and industrial pollution, and acidifying waters.
Unless decisive action is taken to reverse these trends, then catching fish in the future could be limited to farms and koi ponds.
“Whether on the coast or in the high seas far away from all, safeguarding biodiverse marine sites is vital for ensuring the sustainable long-term use of precious natural resources,” Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, said in a statement.