When we think of climate change, we usually think of how it affects the air we breathe or the overall temperature. A lot of us foolishly deny it’s even happening, or how humans have increased the rate at which it is happening. Even so, there’s a huge part of climate change that often gets ignored, and that’s how our oceans are affected. These are just a few ways that the oceans are affected by climbing temperatures.
A positive feedback loop is a cycle in which one component precipitates and worsens another component. These components of the cycle add together to exponentially further the result of whatever loop it is we’re talking about. Climate change represents perhaps the most important positive feedback loop you’ll ever hear about or discuss. Actually, the sad part is there’s more than one in play.
Here’s one important example: when sunlight hits ice, some sunlight is reflected away from the surface. The warmer it is, the more ice melts. The more ice melts, the less sunlight is reflected. The less sunlight is reflected, the warmer it is and the more ice melts as a result. That is a positive feedback loop. As you can see, it’s possible for things to get worse a lot faster than most of us can see or predict. Small changes now will be enormous in just a few decades. By the way–the more the ice melts, the more our oceans will rise and affect our coastal cities and devastate our economies. According to NASA, we could experience no less than one to three feet of sea level rise before the end of the century, and many experts believe it could happen much faster.
Another important feedback loop–or another component of the aforementioned, if you will–involves methane in our oceans and permafrost. When methane is released into the atmosphere, the greenhouse gas absorbs the sun’s heat. This heat causes permafrost to melt. Sadly, the permafrost in the Arctic is home to a massive methane stockpile of over one trillion tons–all of which will be released the more the world warms, causing the world to warm even faster.
Coral reefs are bleaching and dying at an alarming rate because of ocean acidification. While this should sound extremely loud alarm bells everywhere, few have noticed the ringing. Acidification reduces the rate of growth for many organisms living in the oceans, including the reefs. On top of that, climate change also alters the way ocean currents flow, which makes it difficult for stationary organisms to thrive or even survive in one place for long.
Those are just a few of the biggest consequences for our oceans as a cause of climate change, but there are more subtle ones as well. If you’re a fan of shellfish, enjoy it. Your grandchildren will learn about them at the same time they’re taught about dinosaurs. Water that’s too acidic causes the shells of shellfish to dissolve. How long do you think they’ll last without the protection of their shells? A great extinction is coming, and we’re not even remotely prepared. The warming of the oceans also makes the shellfish we already eat a whole lot more toxic.
It’s scary to think that these effects of climate change are just a few that can be measured that we already know about. How many more effects are there that have yet to be discovered? How many will hit us hard before we have the chance to realize they’re coming?