The Oceans and Climate Change: Unprecedented Threats for Marine Life

By Dunbar, Robert B. | Pacific Ecologist, Winter 2011 | Go to article overview

The Oceans and Climate Change: Unprecedented Threats for Marine Life


Dunbar, Robert B., Pacific Ecologist


The oceans are crucial in absorbing both heat and C[O.sub.2] from the atmosphere as emissions continue to rise as a result of burning fossil fuels. However, this has serious consequences for our ice sheets and marine ecosystems, reports marine geologist, ROBERT B DUNBAR. Man-made fossil fuel C[O.sub.2] is also causing ocean acidification and the rate of change is likely to be too fast for many marine organisms to adapt. Without education about the role of the oceans in climate change and effective policy changes, we will be unable to prevent disastrous consequences and loss of entire ecosystems is likely.

To study past climate change our international team of 130 crew members and scientific staff drilled holes in the seafloor off Wilkes Land, Antarctica, the coldest place on Earth, in January and February 2010. We recovered over 2000 metres of sediment cores on board the scientific ocean drilling vessel, the Joides Resolution. I sailed as a sedimentologist and have a strong interest in the oceans involvement in climate change. We cored and recovered sediments going back over 40 million years in time, to a period when Antarctica was much warmer than today, when it had little ice and was covered with forests and brush lands. As the ocean and the moisture it releases to the atmosphere are the primary agents for transporting heat from warmer to colder parts of our planet, the ocean was surely involved in making Antarctica so much warmer than it is today. We also strongly suspect high levels of carbon dioxide in the ancient atmosphere were responsible for making the ocean warmer.

[ILLUSTRATION OMITTED]

By studying the cores we collected on this research trip we can help answer key questions about climate change in Antarctica during ancient times when it held much less ice than it does today. Some questions are: How rapidly can the ice sheet melt? What kinds of temperature change must occur to initiate melting? How important is the warming of the ocean? Is the level of carbon dioxide concentration in the atmosphere important? The answers to these questions are the key to understanding our greenhouse future. Yet it will take some time, probably several years, to fully reveal and test the answers we get from our current ocean drilling expedition to Antarctica. This is how science works, by constantly testing hypotheses using new information and through comparisons with results from physical models. Our conclusions are then subjected to rigorous peer-review by experts not directly involved in the project. Although this takes additional time, these rounds of revision and rethinking ensure our published reports have the greatest possible scientific credibility.

But we don't need to wait for the results of this current expedition to be published in the peer-reviewed scientific literature to understand the basic role of the oceans in modern and ancient climate change. Much work has already been done and the physics is relatively straightforward and in at least one area, it is uncontestable.

Oceans transport heat

The oceans cover 71% of our planet's surface. The water in the ocean has unique physical properties that affect our global climate. Most importantly, the volumetric heat-carrying capacity of seawater is about 3200 times greater than that of dry air at sea level. To understand the physics of the climate system, this means the ocean is capable of taking up, storing, or releasing much greater amounts of heat than the atmosphere can. The oceans act as the flywheel of global climate change, doing the main work of transporting heat from the tropics to the poles.

Also, the moisture that allows humid air masses to transport heat (and rainwater) around the globe mostly comes from the oceans. So the oceans are involved whenever the planet warms or cools. We've been carefully measuring the actual temperature of the ocean for many decades, first with thermometers and now with thermistors and through satellite observations and arrays of instruments drifting through the interior of the deep sea. …

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