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Our Oceans Keep Getting Warmer—Here’s What It Means for the Planet

No, this definitely is not good news for your beach holiday.

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Faster than we realized
We knew the oceans—like the rest of our planet—were getting warmer. But research released one year ago in the journal Science showed that they were getting warmer much faster than we initially thought, with dire consequences for all sorts of living things on Earth. In fact, the oceans have been heating up 40 percent faster than the UN predicted a mere six years ago, reported the New York Times, and breaking records year after year. Yup, it’s pretty bad. Here’s what could happen if the glaciers continue to melt.

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Rising seas

You’ve probably heard lots of chatter about this already but it bears repeating because it’s a doozie. Our oceans absorb much of the excess heat that human-caused climate change has engendered, providing a buffer for us so we aren’t sweltering every minute of our lives. But that’s come at an enormous cost—not least of which is the melting of Arctic ice. As the ice melts, the resulting liquid water causes oceans to rise, which in turn leads to the flooding of low-lying places. And that leads to all sorts of catastrophes: loss of homes, loss of lives, loss of land hat all kinds of species once called home. In fact, these 13 islands are predicted to disappear before the end of the century.

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More destructive storms

Perhaps you’ve noticed a preponderance of destructive hurricanes of late? Yes, chalk that up, at least partially, to warming oceans, too. As the Environmental Defense Fund explains, “As…storms travel across warm oceans, they pull in more water vapor and heat. That means stronger wind, heavier rainfall and more flooding when the storms hit land.” All that warming is also making storms get intense faster than ever, and they’re also traveling slower, which means that they have extra time to do extra damage. Going forward, these are the 13 weather terms you’ll want to know.

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Threats to marine life

No surprise here: an ocean that’s warmer than it should be has negative impacts on all the creatures that have acclimated to living in it. It’s the top 250 feet, from the surface of the ocean on down, that have warmed the most and the fastest, reports National Geographic, and animals that live in that zone have been impacted first. That means whales, the plankton some whales feed on, and the vast majority of fish, have been suffering the consequences; they’re sensitive to even small shifts in temperature, but significant ocean heatwaves, with spikes of several degrees above average, are becoming more common and getting more extreme. All this is what makes whales one of the 14 wild animal species you never knew were endangered.

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Tough times for coral

One of the hardest hit marine lifeforms, and one of the most stunning sites to see beneath the waves, is coral. These are incredibly important living members of an ocean ecosystem because they provide habitat for other creatures, which in turn becomes dinner for critters further up the food chain. Coral is even more sensitive to shifts in temperature than some other ocean dwellers. As a result, in the last three or four years, one-fifth of all the world’s coral has bleached—as National Geographic explains it, spitting out the “symbiotic algae that live inside them” and that gives them energy—and died.

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Worsening food insecurity

You know who eats fish besides other fish? Humans. And in some parts of the world, particularly in Asia, communities are deeply dependent upon vibrant fishing grounds both as a means to feed themselves and their families, and to earn an income. According to the UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization, 4.3 billion people derive 15 percent of their protein from marine species; and while that may not sound like a lot, consider that these are often communities that are economically the least able to make up for shortages all along the food supply chain. These 11 seafood facts will change how you eat it forever.

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Intensifying disputes between countries

In addition to dying from ocean warming, marine species are also moving. And this, too, has repercussions on the people who rely on them for food and money. As Rutgers ecologist Malin Pinsky told the New York Times, this is “driving conflict between countries…[that’s] spilling over far beyond just fish, it’s turned into trade wars. It’s turned into diplomatic disputes. It’s led to a breakdown in international relations in some cases.” International laws governing fisheries, and who is allowed to fish in them, is already complicated and fraught with challenges; this just exacerbates an already difficult situation.

sea urchin marine life disease Alexandra Yusupova/Getty Images

Increasing exposure to disease

Changes in climate lead to changes in the numbers of diseases species are subjected to, and that holds true for animals that live in the ocean as much for animals that live on land. A 2019 paper by Cornell University researchers showed that marine infectious diseases had increased from 1973 to 2013 and led to mass mortalities; the researchers directly linked this growth to warming ocean waters and found they were particularly significant for urchins and coral—beyond the bleaching events that we already knew were putting them under threat. And these animals have the power to pass it on; people who eat diseased species or touch them with an open wound are susceptible to infection, reports the IUCN. Find out the penguin species that could disappear by the end of the century.

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More jellyfish

While some species have been in decline thanks to warmer oceans, others have proliferated. Perhaps on your most recent visit to the beach you noticed more jellyfish. It’s not just you. There really are more jellyfish, thanks to the fact that they are able to thrive in warmer waters, with less oxygen, in plenty of pollution. These ancient cnidarians are erupting in “jellyfish blooms” around the world, leading to beach closures and drops in the populations of other fish; one bloom alone killed 10,000 salmon in 2007. Some jellyfish are so toxic their venom can kill a human in three minutes—bad news if there are more of them in our future. Jellyfish blooms have also gunked up the pipes of power plants, leading to power outages. Find out more weirdly fascinating facts about jellyfish.

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Dissolving seashells

Maybe this sounds like a neat magic trick. But imagine the impact of a hard, protective carapace turning soft and significantly less protective if you are the creature that lives in it. As EDF reports, nearly one-third of all the carbon dioxide that’s emitted on our planet winds up in our oceans, and this, in turn, causes our oceans to be more acidic. That acid breaks down the calcium carbonate that clams, mussels, crabs, use to make their shells. By one estimate, reported by Sciencing, in ten years the Arctic Ocean will be acidic enough to actually dissolve these shells—delivering a certain death sentence for such species. Find out 25 simple ways you can begin reducing your carbon footprint.

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Fewer birds

Warmer oceans don’t just have a disastrous effect on marine ecosystems. They also create havoc for species on land, like birds. Even seabirds (think, penguins) mate and nest on land, which means that disappearing landmass due to sea level rise has an impact on avian species, too, as their generational habitats disappear. And of course, seabirds eat things that come from the sea, and with this source of food now under threat, so, too, are the birds, writes Audubon magazine. Seabirds are specialist eaters that don’t like jellyfish—the “slime” that’s now dominating oceans—and some of them are starting to be at risk for starvation. Learn about 14 beautiful animals that could disappear in your lifetime.

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Fewer polar bears

Yes, many beloved and iconic cold-weather species are at risk because of warming oceans. Polar bears hunt on ice, and with no ice, they lose their hunting grounds and their ability to feed themselves and their offspring. And like the seabirds, they are also at risk for losing habitat where they raise their young, dig their dens, and carry out all the behaviors they were genetically designed for. And chances are pretty slim that polar bears would be able to adapt to a warmer world, whether by land or by sea.

Lela Nargi
Lela Nargi is a veteran journalist covering science, sustainability, climate, and agriculture for Readers Digest, Washington Post, Sierra, NPR, The Counter, JSTOR Daily, and many other outlets. She also writes about science for kids. You can follow her on Twitter @LelaNargi.

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