The oceans play a major role in regulating our planet’s climate. They are habitat to more than 250,000 species, they store carbon, absorb a large part of the additional atmospheric heat, and produce more than half of the oxygen we breathe. They are the blue lungs of our planet.
Global warming is mainly caused by carbon dioxide (CO2) which we release into the atmosphere by burning fossil resources such as petroleum gas, oil and coal. Since the beginning of the industrial age in the early 19th century, CO2 levels in the atmosphere rose by 40%.
Rising temperatures and melting glaciers
According to the IPCC’s 2019 Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate, the global ocean absorbs some 90% of the additional heat from the atmosphere. The Arctic and Antarctic ice caps serve as protective shields, reflecting much of the sunlight. When they melt away, the darker water absorbs more solar heat, which in turn accelerates global warming: The earth is heating up, glaciers and polar ice caps melt away at an increasing rate and the sea levels keep rising.
The ocean absorbs about a third of the CO2 in the atmosphere. This is due to a concentration gradient between air and sea. Rising atmospheric CO2 levels mean that the ocean absorbs larger quantities to restore the balance. The gas is dissolving in water, forming carbonic acid and lowering pH levels – the water gets more acidic. This poses a problem for calcifying organisms like corals, calcareous algae, shells and crustaceans.
This GIF shows a calciferous shell dissolving due to acid in the sea water (© opsociety.org/giphy.com).
Corals are particularly vulnerable to marine acidification and warming. Many coral reefs are already affected by coral bleaching.
Whales – great climate conservationists
Due to their life cycle and feeding behaviours, whales support the growth of phytoplankton.These tiny marine creatures assimilate CO2 through the process of photosynthesis, thereby releasing oxygen. Phytoplankton produces about half the oxygen that we breathe. Whale excrements contain a range of nutrients, including iron and nitrogen, which are essential for phytoplankton. When diving for food, whales reach depths of up to 3,000 metres, stirring the water layers with their massive bodies and distributing essential nutrients.
It is estimated that over their lifetime, whales can sequester up to 33 tons of carbon. When they die, their dead bodies sink to the seafloor, taking the carbon with them (see IMF report 2019).
OceanCare’s work on climate change
At the United Nations Climate Change Conference (COP 21) in December 2015 in Paris, 195 countries for the first time agreed on a legally binding global climate protection agreement. Paradoxically, despite the Paris Agreement, the search for fossil fuels continues. The plastics industry also continues to grow, further boosting the quest for oil. Furthermore, exploration activities for hydrocarbon resources is generating intense underwater noise by using so-called air guns. Such ocean noise can have devastating impacts on marine wildlife. If we want to achieve the climate goals agreed within the Paris Agreement, we need intensify imposing efficient and strict measures:
- OceanCare calls for an immediate ban on all new offshore oil and gas exploration and production, and negotiate a binding phase-out of current offshore oil and gas extraction.
- OceanCare calls for the reduction of vessel speed globally by at least 10%. Imposing such measure would result in the reduction of greenhouse gas emissions by 14%, underwater noise emissions by 40% and the risk to collide with a large whale by 50%.
- For many years, OceanCare has been working with dedication to protect whales.They contribute to reduce the effects of climate change. For example through our engagement within the International Whaling Commission (IWC), we have been striving for the optimum protection of cetacean since 1992.
Mangroves effectively protect the climate and coastal regions. Not only do they store significant amounts of carbon, they also dissipate wave energy and thus mitigate the negative effects of flooding. Together with the Shark Research Center (CIT), we promote mangrove reforestation in Venezuela.
Mangroves protect the coasts from the effects of storms and rising sea levels
Offshore oil rig in the Gulf of Thailand