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Climate Change

The World’s Oceans Are Poised To Unleash “Misery On A Global Scale”

What will the world’s governments do as the oceans around us rise?

The earth’s oceans are the source of all life. Covering 140 million square miles — some 72% of the earth’s surface — the oceans determine much about what happens with climate and weather. That’s really important, as most people live no more than 200 miles from the sea and relate closely to it. Yet recent indications are that the world’s oceans are poised to “unleash misery on a global scale” unless the carbon pollution destabilizing Earth’s marine environment is mitigated.

“Oceanside Sunset,” Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica (permission to use freely if correctly attributed)

A draft IPCC report obtained by Agence France-Presse, a global news agency known for its fact checking, outlines the consequences if humanity does not reinvent how we produce and consume so we can avoid the worst ravages of climate change and environmental degradation.

The 900-page scientific assessment from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) titled, Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, is targeted for release to the general public for commentary on September 25. The release follows a period where diplomats and experts will finalize the Summary for Policymakers.

The IPCC is the United Nations arm dedicated to assessing scientific research related to the climate crisis.

The earth’s average surface temperature has gone up 1 degree Celsius since the late 19th century and, over the next 80 years, melting glaciers will alternately give too much and then too little fresh water to the multitudes who depend on them. 30% of the northern hemisphere’s surface permafrost could melt by century’s end, unleashing billions of tons of carbon and accelerating global warming even more.

The Paris Agreement calls for capping global warming at “well below” 2C. Current rates of CO2 emissions indicate the planet will warm another 2 or 3 degrees by 2100.

Major points to be unveiled in the IPCC report, which focuses on the oceans and cryosphere (the Earth’s frozen zones), include:

  • Destructive changes already set in motion could see a steady decline in fish stocks;
  • A 100-fold or more increase will occur in the damages caused by superstorms; and,
  • 100s of millions of people will be displaced by rising seas.
world's oceans

“Out to Sea,” Carolyn Fortuna, CleanTechnica (permission to use freely if correctly attributed)

Behind the Scenes at the IPCC

Governments meet in Monaco this month to review and approve the new IPCC official summary. The underlying science of the report, which has been drawn from thousands of peer-reviewed studies, will not be modified. Rather, diplomats with scientists nearby for conferral will debate how best to frame the findings. Partially, this is because the world’s largest economies, which account for nearly 60% of global fossil fuel-based emissions, seem hesitant to announce more ambitious goals for walking away from carbon economies.

Of course, these same countries will face devastating ocean- and ice-related impacts concurrent with failures to take climate action.

The release date for the IPCC report on the world’s ocean is targeted for September 25.

Even in the US, where billions are being spent to protect New York, Miami, and other exposed cities, such efforts could easily be overwhelmed, say experts.

“There is a pervasive thread in the US right now promoted by techno-optimists who think we can engineer our way out of this problem,” says Michael Mann, director of the Earth System Science Center at Pennsylvania State University. “But the US is not ready for a meter of sea level rise by 2100. Just look at what happened in the wake of Superstorm Sandy, Katrina, in Houston, or Puerto Rico.”

The World’s Oceans & Abruptly Rising Temperatures

Oceans absorb 25% of human CO2 emissions and have soaked up more than 90% of the additional heat generated by greenhouse gas emissions since 1970. After all, one of the ocean’s largest roles is to soak up energy (heat) and distribute it more evenly throughout the earth. The top few meters of the ocean stores as much heat as Earth’s entire atmosphere. So, as the planet warms, it’s the ocean that gets most of the extra energy.

But if the ocean gets too warm, then the plants and animals that live in it must adapt — or die.

Without this marine sponge, in other words, global warming would already have made Earth’s surface intolerably hot for our species. However, the ocean and everything in it are paying a price: the ocean is becoming more acidic. Acidification is disrupting the ocean’s basic food chain, and marine heatwaves — which have become 2x as frequent since the 1980s — are creating vast oxygen-depleted dead zones.

Water, Water, Everywhere

By 2050, many low-lying megacities and small island nations will experience “extreme sea level events” every year, even under the most optimistic emissions reduction scenarios, the report concludes. By 2100, “annual flood damages are expected to increase by two to three orders of magnitude,” or 100 to 1,000 fold, the draft summary for policymakers says. Even if the world manages to cap global warming at 2 degrees Celsius, the global ocean waterline will rise enough to displace more than a quarter of a billion people.

These scenarios are likely to occur as soon as 2100.

“Even if the number is 100 or 50 million by 2100, that’s still a major disruption and a lot of human misery,” notes Ben Strauss, CEO and chief scientist of Climate Central, a US based research group. “When you consider the political instability that has been triggered by relatively small levels of migration today, I shudder to think of the future world when tens of millions of people are moving because the ocean is eating their land.”

Such warming of the planet to 2C by 2100 means “we will only be at the beginning of a runaway train ride of sea level rise.” Strauss’ research informs the report’s conclusions.

Final Thoughts

The 900-page scientific assessment is the fourth such report from the UN in less than a year. The others focused on a 1.5-Celsius (2.6-Farenheit) cap on global warming, the state of biodiversity, and how to manage forests and the global food system.

In a statement earlier this year, Debra Roberts, co-chair of IPCC Working Group II, which focuses on the vulnerability of socioeconomic and natural systems to the climate crisis, noted that there can be broad benefits to people and natural ecosystems of limiting global warming to 1.5°C.

“The Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate takes this story one step further by evaluating how human and natural communities can be affected by the impacts of climate change on 2 earth systems that touch all of our lives directly or indirectly: the ocean and the frozen areas of the world. It also assesses how we can set the course for a more sustainable and equitable future by reducing or better managing this impact.”

Scientists are clear that we need to protect at least 30% of our global oceans by 2030 if we are to safeguard wildlife and to help mitigate the impacts of climate change. What’s needed is global governmental treaties that form effective ocean sanctuaries in international waters.

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Written By

Carolyn Fortuna (they, them), Ph.D., is a writer, researcher, and educator with a lifelong dedication to ecojustice. Carolyn has won awards from the Anti-Defamation League, The International Literacy Association, and The Leavy Foundation. Carolyn is a small-time investor in Tesla. Please follow Carolyn on Twitter and Facebook.


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