Our Oceans Are Reaching the Climate Change Tipping Point, Warn Scientists

Researchers are warning that our oceans are rapidly approaching a point of no return where climate change will drastically alter marine habitats and what life they can support. What could this mean for our future and how can we stave off the worst effects?

Publishing in the journal Science, researchers from the University of Queensland together with an international team of other scientists warn that increased carbon emissions in our atmospheres as well as other pollution is causing the acidification of our oceans and that we are rapidly approaching the point at which our aquatic eco-systems may undergo permanent change, which in turn could threaten the lives of many marine species and radically alter the make-up marine habitats. 

The researchers say that there has not been enough focus on climate change and its impact on our oceans, with recent data showing only a relatively small percentage of research publications are even talking about oceans in their wider coverage of climate change topics. This is curious given that oceans may absorb up to 90 percent of the excess heat and over a quarter of the carbon pollution that we’ve been creating as a result of our use of fossil fuels.

The researchers, building off last year’s IPCC assessment of climate change’s impact on our oceans, looked at two different scenarios: carrying on with our fossil fuel consumption as is, and taking steps to reduce it to agreed international goals. By comparing the scenarios (a more in-depth review can be found here) the researchers were able to show that if we do nothing or fail to meet our international targets, rising temperatures will lead to warmer and more stagnant waters. With a decrease in available oxygen, many marine species will struggle to thrive, and this may even lead to destruction of habitats like coral reefs which are already in decline. Habitat collapse could almost certainly lead to marine species die-out, particularly those that reside or depend on environments like coral beds, and in addition would likely imperil human communities that rely on fishing as part of their food supply and economy. Another issue for humans and in particular the fishing industry is that those fish that do not die-out will likely shift to other regions to escape the unfriendly changes in their habitats, again threatening food security and commerce.

Specifically, the study warns that any rise beyond the internationally agreed 2°C  of pre-industrial temperatures–which some evidence says will still be seriously problematic–could be devastating. 

The researchers say that after reviewing the data, there are four key conclusions that must be recognized:

First, the ocean strongly influences the climate system and provides important services to humans. Second, impacts on key marine and coastal organisms, ecosystems, and services are already detectable, and several will face high risk of impacts well before 2100, even under the low-emissions scenario (RCP2.6). These impacts will occur across all latitudes, making this a global concern beyond the north/south divide. Third, immediate and substantial reduction of CO2 emissions is required to prevent the massive and mostly irreversible impacts on ocean ecosystems and their services that are projected with emissions greater than those in RCP2.6. Limiting emissions to this level is necessary to meet stated objectives of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change; a substantially different ocean would result from any less-stringent emissions scenario. Fourth, as atmospheric CO2 increases, protection, adaptation, and repair options for the ocean become fewer and less effective.

What does that mean? Coming ahead of the December climate summit in Paris it is a call that our political leaders attend with a mind toward real solutions. Specifically, we must reduce our emissions output if we are to stand any chance of staying under the 2°C cap. On that point, some researchers doubt we can actually get anywhere near that target and are projecting a rise that will be significantly higher, so we need to take a long and dispassionate look at what is actually achievable and go from there. Furthermore, it isn’t just enough to combat rising temperatures. As the above makes clear, we will also have to work to rebuild ocean habitats and help those fish and marine animals that we have endangered so they can begin to thrive again. We can do that by cutting down on other pollutants, stopping building work that would further change underwater ecosystems that are already feeling pressure, as well as studying in more detail climate change effects on ocean environments. It will mean tough decisions, like potentially cutting back fishing quotas in order to ensure the long term security of the industry, and more. But these are the hard choices that we will have to make if we are to even begin to help our ocean habitats survive. 

The scientists perhaps put it best when they say:

“In summary, the carbon that we emit today will change the Earth System irreversibly for many generations to come. The ocean’s content of carbon, acidity, and heat as well as sea level will continue to increase long after atmospheric CO2 is stabilized. These irreversible changes increase with increasing emissions, underscoring the urgency of near-term carbon emission reduction if ocean warming and acidification are to be kept at moderate levels.”

Lastly, this serves to emphasize that we can no longer afford to give any ground to man-made climate change deniers because, quite simply, we don’t have the time.

Photo credit: Thinkstock.


Mark Donner
Mark Donner3 years ago

A big reminder to human arrogance: nothing on Earth belongs to "we" (referring to humans). Humans don't even own one cubic centimeter of Earth's land water or air. All of it belongs to non-human life forms.

Mark Donner
Mark Donner3 years ago

I don't know why these articles keep repeating "we" and "our". I don't consider myself part of this human corporate or government "we" group.. since THEY are terrorists and psychopaths, so no thanks. If I had been a deciding influence, most of the corporate executives and psychopathic politicians and employees of hiding behind government agencies who are supporting them would be in jail where they belong, the chemical and carbon polluting industries would have been shut down. So don't say "we" I am not part of the human insect mind (apologies to insects, they are much more intelligent than the average human psycho)

Siyus Copetallus
Siyus Copetallus3 years ago

Thank you for sharing!

Dan Blossfeld
Dan Blossfeld3 years ago

This article appears to have missed the most important anthropogenic effect on the oceans - that of ships.


Kathryn Irby
Past Member 3 years ago

Do the Republicans give a rat's a-s? Why, of course not!! Thank you for sharing.

Dt Nc
Dt Nc3 years ago


MmAway M3 years ago

Pitiful and sad

Lindsay Kemp
Lindsay K3 years ago

We've all got to take this seriously now!

Valentina R.
Valentina R3 years ago

The oceans are hot, abused and filled with plastic. We are doing a great job, indeed.

Nikki Davey
Nikki Davey3 years ago

Legislators worldwide have been acting like ostriches with their heads in the sand for far too long. Denial of all aspects of climate and planetary change has become their default response.

It's almost too late to prevent mass extinctions of many species including humans. I hope that the tide of opinion is finally turning.