The vital link between oceans and climate change is among the issues at the forefront of discussions at the United Nations Ocean Conference taking place in New York from 5 to 9 June.
SDG 14 is the only universally agreed road map for conserving and sustainably managing marine resourcesPeter Thomson, President of the UN General Assembly
The oceans, which cover three quarters of the Earth’s surface, play a vital role in the global climate system, generating oxygen and absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Changes to the climate, brought about by increasing levels of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, will thus lead to changes in the oceans, including sea-level rise and ocean acidification, which will put marine ecosystems and coastal communities at risk.
World leaders acknowledged the importance of the oceans when they adopted the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), the universal blueprint for ending poverty, protecting the planet and ensuring that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. SDG 14 sets out specific targets to be met in order to conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
“SDG 14 is the only universally agreed road map for conserving and sustainably managing marine resources. Its faithful implementation is therefore our best hope for remedying the ocean’s woes,” said Peter Thomson, President of the 71st session of the UN General Assembly.
Pounding early winter surf from massive 15 foot ocean swells. Photo: Irin News/ Mike Baird/Flickr
Rising ocean temperatures
Although the ocean is the single largest habitat on the planet and is inextricably linked to human survival, climate change and the impact of increasing carbon dioxide emissions on the oceans have been largely overshadowed in the climate change debate, according to Isabella Lövin, Deputy Prime Minister of Sweden, one of the co-chairs of the Ocean Conference.
The oceans – which produce half of the world’s oxygen, regulate the earth’s climate and temperature, provide food and water, and are home to hundreds of thousands of species – have been a staunch ally in curbing climate change.
More than 93 per cent of all the heat people have added to the planet since the 1950s has been absorbed by the oceans – but at a price, Ms. Lövin stressed. Rising ocean temperatures and increased acidification are now becoming apparent in melting Arctic sea ice and coral bleaching. Immediate mitigation, protection, restoration and adaptation actions are needed.
Healthy oceans, stable climate
“Whether on the coast or in the high seas far away from all, safeguarding biodiverse marine sites is vital for ensuring the sustainable long-term use of precious natural resources,” says Irina Bokova, Director-General of the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO).
The importance of the ocean to global climate cannot be underestimated, according to UNESCO. It absorbs a significant portion of carbon and an overwhelming amount of excess heat. Still, warmer atmospheric temperatures and increasing concentrations of greenhouse gases exert an enormous pressure on the ocean’s ability to regulate the climate.
UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) helps in developing ocean sciences, observations and capacity-building to monitor the ocean’s major role in the climate system and predict ocean changes.
Laying the ground for efficient climate adaptation and mitigation strategies, IOC focuses on the most damaging impacts, such as temperature increase, sea-level rise, storm variations and changes in marine biodiversity. Its scientifically-founded services help countries, particularly coastal and small island developing States, become more resilient to present and future climate impacts.
Impact of sea-level rise
The oceans are experiencing “major stress” from climate change, according to Deputy Secretary-General Amina J. Mohammed. “Globally, the sea level has risen by 20 centimetres since the start of the 20th century, due mostly to thermal expansion of the oceans and melting of glaciers and ice caps. Some regions are experiencing even greater sea level rise.
“General warming trends, massive episodes of coral bleaching, acidification and the sea level rise are affecting ecosystems in all regions, threatening fisheries, food chains and the oceans’ ability to act as efficient carbon sinks.
“Warmer temperatures are causing more extreme weather events, and a projected two-metre rise in sea levels by the end of the century would be catastrophic for coastal habitats and economies. Hundreds of millions of people are at risk,” she warns.
Particularly at risk are the inhabitants of small island States, with hurricanes, cyclones and tsunamis becoming increasingly more common threats.
Ocean health and economic prosperity
“Trouble for the oceans means trouble for people. Human well-being and health, economic prosperity, and a stable climate depend on healthy oceans,” says Wu Hongbo, Under-Secretary-General for Economic and Social Affairs and Secretary-General of the Ocean Conference.
According to the UN Office for Disaster Risk Reduction (UNISDR), losses due to disasters from natural and man-made hazards including floods, storms and the impacts of climate change are mounting, costing governments over $300 billion globally each year.
UNISDR recently aligned its Disaster Resilience Scorecard, which provides a set of overarching assessments on disaster resilience, with the Sendai Framework – boosting the number of cities and towns capable of reducing their disaster losses by 2020.
Global warming and the Polar Region
The effects of worldwide greenhouse gas emissions, one of the leading causes of global warming, are felt most intensely in the Polar Region.
View of the melting Collins Glacier off King George Island, Antarctica, in November 2007. UN Photo/Eskinder Debebe
According to the World Meteorological Organization (WMO), both the Artic and Antarctica are warming twice as fast as the rest of the world. Glaciers and ice shelves are melting and sea ice and snow coverage are shrinking.
Polar wildlife ecosystems and indigenous population are already feeling the impact of climate change as polar conditions impact weather across the globe.
“Because of teleconnections, the poles influence weather and climate conditions in lower latitudes where hundreds of millions of people live,” warnsPetteri Taalas, WMO’s Secretary-General. “Warming Arctic air masses and declining sea ice are believed to affect ocean circulation and the jet stream, and are potentially linked to extreme phenomena such as cold spells, heat waves and droughts in the northern hemisphere.”
With relatively little data available on the Earth’s Polar Regions, the UN weather agency kicked off of a two-year international effort to close gaps in polar forecasting capacity and improve future environmental safety.
The Year of Polar Prediction was launched in May to close the gaps in polar forecasting capacity and improve predictions of weather, climate and ice conditions in the farthest reaches of the planet. The global campaign aims to minimize environmental risks and maximize opportunities associated with climate change in polar regions.
Social scientists will examine how polar forecasts can be factored into socio-economic decision making while stakeholders in transport, shipping and tourism will provide input on community needs.
Coral reefs under threat from climate change