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A Time for Alarm, A Time for Hope

Dr. Peter Auster, Senior Research Scientist at Mystic Aquarium

The oceans are getting warmer and more acidic, sea level is rising, and oxygen levels in seawater are declining, all at rates faster than predicted previously.  The most recent United Nations Special Report focused on the ocean, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), paints an alarming picture of the present and future ocean.  This news follows recent UN reports about declining biodiversity across the globe and the effects of even a 1.5 degree C increase in global temperature. An equally alarming article, in the prestigious scientific journal “Science,” reports on steeply declining populations of land, coastal and marine birds across North America.  Collectively, these reports link climate to effects not only on our natural resources but to food supplies, economies, and human health and safety.  The costs of climate change will touch every segment of human societies across the globe.  The scope of impacts seems overwhelming.

As a marine ecologist and conservation biologist, I can’t say I wake up each morning with a rosy outlook for the future.  My own research demonstrates that climate change is touching our own back yard, with communities of fishes in Long Island Sound and the Gulf of Maine region exhibiting recent shifts in species diversity and abundance linked to increasing temperatures.  Species that form habitat for fishes are also changing, with lower ecological value to those species that use them for food and shelter from predators.  Beyond our immediate region, coral reef ecosystems at my tropical study sites are changing due to bleaching, with overfishing impeding the process of recovery.

Despite the gloom and doom inherent in these blasts of bad news, there are signs of hope that I embrace and suggest others can too.  From an ocean perspective, my work and that of colleagues in highly protected marine reserves demonstrate that ecosystems with all of the “parts” intact can be very resilient to the effects of climate change.  Further, areas with limited exploitation can dampen climate effects and allow sustainable use of natural resources while conserving biodiversity.  Such use limits catch, minimizes effects of fishing gear, and avoids areas of sensitive and vulnerable species, communities and habitats.  More places like these could go a long way to stemming the worst effects, at least in the near term, of climate change.

But while these ideas about ocean management are local in implementation, how do we deal with the “global” parts of climate change, linking the sea to land and aquatic environments?  First, while news of trends in global change are alarming, with the predictions more refined and less uncertain, we have known about the types and directions of effects for decades.  Further, and most important, we know what to do, although the longer we wait to act, the less time we have to dampen the most severe effects. 

Actions needed range from personal and local to national and global.  Most prudent is to stay informed.  If we are to stem the tide of climate change, so to speak, an informed citizenry will be critical for making personal choices, addressing alternatives for regulations, and electing candidates to public office.  Reducing energy needs at home, shopping and traveling smarter, and participating in our democracy, from local hearings to national policy, is needed to move as rapidly as possible to reduce greenhouse gases and a warmer world.  The time is now for alarm, and to behave as our hopes can prevail.

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