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Our Ocean’s Future In An Era of Change

Imagine you live on the East Coast.  NOAA—the federal agency that tracks hurricanes—has spotted a tropical storm brewing in the mid-Atlantic. Over the next few days, the storm develops into a Category 5 monster.  NOAA’s best available forecasts show a possible landfall across over 600 miles of US coastline – and your town has a 3% chance of being hit.

What do you do?  Wait too long and you’re trapped by depleted store shelves, clogged highways, and potential catastrophe.  Get out too fast, and you’ve disrupted your life unnecessarily.  How high do the odds need to be before you make a run for it—5%?  10%?  50%?

These low-probability events with catastrophic outcomes are known as “long tail” events – named after the far ends of the standard normal distribution curve.  At the early stages of these types of crises, people are free to make their own choices.  But at some point, individual choice narrows, and the problem becomes collective:  in the case of hurricanes, evacuation orders have to be issued, highways have to become one-directional, power stations have to be shut down, etc.

Great Barrier Reef. Photo by Gary Patton.
Great Barrier Reef. Photo by Gary Patton.

In recent weeks, we have received the equivalent of hurricane forecasts about the ocean.  The rate at which the ocean creates life is, by most accounts, declining. The Atlantic overturning current–which brings warm air to cold climates and vice versa–has slowed down by 25%.  Recent studies also indicate that The Great Barrier Reef – the world’s largest living structure – is taking unprecedented losses from coral bleaching, and that West Antarctic ice sheet is melting far faster than previously anticipated.

All of these phenomena are caused by rapidly heating and acidifying ocean waters. Collectively, they will affect the ocean’s fundamental functions – food production, heat distribution, carbon capture.  Will they do so at levels that could prove catastrophic to humans? The ocean presents a classic long tail problem – avoiding catastrophe ultimately depends on the decisions we collectively make in the face of uncertainty.

Today, we are signing the Paris agreement in New York.  It is a real milestone, and provides the essential structure we need to channel and increase our collective ambition. But ambitious we must be: collectively, the current national commitments made under the agreement would still result in global average temperature rising by 3.5 degrees Celsius–a catastrophically high number. Even 2 degrees may result in an ocean far different from the one we know today.  At 1.6 degrees, for example, melting of the West Antarctic Ice Sheet may become irreversible, and there is evidence to suggest that many, if not most, of the world’s coral reefs would die.  That’s terrible news for the ocean’s fish, about one-third of which spend at least part of their life cycle in coral reefs.

Maintaining the ocean’s essential functionality – its ability to create oxygen, make food, distribute heat, absorb CO2, etc., will require a commitment to confine the rise in global average temperature to only 1.5 degrees. Doing so will be a daunting challenge which can’t be met unless the ocean is front and central in the climate debate.   And yet, it played virtually no role in the Paris negotiations.  This must change.

No Ordinary World: Bandalay Beach, CA. Photo by Nury Molina.
No Ordinary World: Bandalay Beach, CA. Photo by Nury Molina.

We need to understand the ocean’s response to climate change much better than we do today – especially the dangerous “run-away” risks.   It will take the best minds, the best big data and the best data visualization technologies to do that…and we need to work fast. If there is a 5% chance of the Gulf Stream changing course, of the North Atlantic ocean becoming stagnant, or of Miami getting swamped in the next 25 years, we need to know about it now, before we’re forced into the narrow end of the long tail. Ocean risks must be plugged into our collective decision making on climate change, into the national commitment process, and into our international priorities.  The greater our braking distance, the more avoidable a crash becomes.

 

Ocean Conservancy is working to protect the ocean from today’s greatest global challenges. Together with our partners, we create science-based solutions for a healthy ocean and the wildlife and communities that depend on it.