Oceans Do Us a ‘Huge Service’ by Absorbing Nearly a Third of Global CO2 Emissions, but at What Cost?
From wildfires to more extreme storms, the effects of climate change are already devastating communities around the globe. But the effects would be even worse if it weren't for the oceans, new research has confirmed.
That is because the world's oceans absorb carbon dioxide that would otherwise stay in the atmosphere. Between 1994 and 2007, oceans absorbed 34 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide, or 31 percent of what humans put into the atmosphere during that time, a study published Friday in Science concluded. That means oceans absorbed the weight of 2.6 billion Volkswagen Beetle cars in carbon on average each year during the study period, study author and senior scientist at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory in Seattle Richard Feely told The Seattle Times.
"[It's] a huge service the oceans are doing that significantly reduces global temperature," Feely said.
The ocean is able to absorb carbon dioxide in two steps, a press release from ETH Zurich, one of the institutions involved in the study, explained:
- Carbon dioxide dissolves in the ocean's surface water
- Ocean circulation distributes and sinks it into deeper waters, where it builds up.
Scientists had long thought this was the case, but the study, which looked at more than 100,000 seawater samples from all parts and depths of the ocean, confirmed their models.
"The oceans have been taking up carbon dioxide recently in exactly the way we thought they would," University of Washington associate oceanography professor Curtis Deutsch, who was not involved with the research, told The Seattle Times. "There's nothing really surprising about the results, but they are super important in confirming that we really do understand the system and the way it operates."
So far, the researchers found, oceans have increased the amount of carbon dioxide they absorb as atmospheric levels have increased. However, there will come a point when this will no longer be the case.
"At some point the ability of the ocean to absorb carbon will start to diminish," study author and NOAA climate scientist Jeremy Mathis told Mashable. "It means atmospheric CO2 levels could go up faster than they already are."
The ocean sink should continue to work as it does now for the next 50 years, however, Mashable reported.
But it does so at a cost. An increase in carbon dioxide in the ocean leads to ocean acidification, which can dissolve the calcium carbonate that makes up mussel shells and coral skeletons, and interrupt processes like fish breathing.
"Documenting the chemical changes imparted on the ocean as a result of human activity is crucial, not least to understand the impact of these changes on marine life," research team leader and ETH Zurich environmental physics professor Nicolas Gruber said.
This is already harming the ecosystems of the Pacific Northwest, where Feely works."The increasing load of carbon dioxide in the ocean interior is already having an impact on the shellfish industry, particularly along the U.S. West Coast," Feely told USA Today.
New Oceans Study Could Alter Climate Predictions https://t.co/7Dg3mr3vem @TheCCoalition @OccupySandy— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1527672306.0
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Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker vetoed a sweeping climate bill on Thursday that would have put the commonwealth on a path to eliminating carbon emissions by 2050.
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World leaders and businesses are not putting enough money into adapting to dangerous changes in the climate and must "urgently step up action," according to a report published Thursday by the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP).
Adaptation Has a Long Way to Go<p>The Adaptation Gap Report, now in its 5th year, finds "huge gaps" between what world leaders agreed to do under the 2015 <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/5-years-paris-climate-agreement/a-55901139" target="_blank">Paris Agreement</a> and what they need to do to keep their citizens safe from climate change.</p><p>A review by the Global Adaptation Mapping Initiative of almost 1,700 examples of climate adaptation found that a third were in the early stages of implementation — and only 3% had reached the point of reducing risks.</p><p>Disasters like storms and droughts have grown stronger than they should be because people have warmed the planet by burning fossil fuels and chopping down rainforests. The world has heated by more than 1.1 degrees Celsius since the Industrial Revolution and is on track to warm by about 3°C by the end of the century.</p><p>If world leaders <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-change-performance-index-how-far-have-we-come/a-55846406" target="_blank">deliver on recent pledges</a> to bring emissions to <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/joe-bidens-climate-pledges-are-they-realistic/a-56173821" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">net-zero</a> by the middle of the century, they could almost limit warming to 2°C. The target of the Paris Agreement, however, is to reach a target well below that — ideally 1.5°C. </p><p>There are two ways, scientists say, to lessen the pain that warming will bring: mitigating climate change by cutting carbon pollution and adapting to the hotter, less stable world it brings.</p>
The Cost of Climate Adaptation<p>About three-quarters of the world's countries have national plans to adapt to climate change, according to the report, but most lack the regulations, incentives and funding to make them work.</p><p>More than a decade ago, rich countries most responsible for climate change pledged to mobilize $100 billion a year by 2020 in climate finance for poorer countries. UNEP says it is "impossible to answer" whether that goal has been met, while an OECD study published in November found that between 2013 and 2018, the target sum had not once been achieved. Even in 2018, which recorded the highest level of contributions, rich countries were still $20 billion short.</p><p>The yearly adaptation costs for developing countries alone are estimated at $70 billion. This figure is expected to at least double by the end of the decade as temperatures rise, and will hit $280-500 billion by 2050, according to the report.</p><p>But failing to adapt is even more expensive.</p><p>When powerful storms like cyclones Fani and Bulbul struck South Asia, early-warning systems allowed governments to move millions of people out of danger at short notice. Storms of similar strength that have hit East Africa, like <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/zimbabwe-after-cyclone-idai-building-climate-friendly-practices/a-54251885" target="_blank">cyclones Idai</a> and Kenneth, have proved more deadly because fewer people were evacuated before disaster struck.</p><p>The Global Commission on Adaptation estimated in 2019 that a $1.8 trillion investment in early warning systems, buildings, agriculture, mangroves and water resources could reap $7.1 trillion in benefits from economic activity and avoided costs when disasters strike.</p>
Exploring Nature-Based Solutions<p>The report also highlights how restoring nature can protect people from climate change while benefiting local communities and ecology.</p><p><a href="https://www.dw.com/en/climate-fires-risk-climate-change-bushfires-australia-california-extreme-weather-firefighters/a-54817927" target="_blank">Wildfires</a>, for instance, could be made less punishing by restoring grasslands and regularly burning the land in controlled settings. Indigenous communities from Australia to Canada have done this for millennia in a way that encourages plant growth while reducing the risk of uncontrolled wildfires. Reforestation, meanwhile, can stop soil erosion and flooding during heavy rainfall while trapping carbon and protecting wildlife.</p><p>In countries like Brazil and Malaysia, governments could better protect coastal homes from floods and storms by restoring <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/mudflats-mangroves-and-marshes-the-great-coastal-protectors/a-50628747" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">mangroves</a> — tangled trees that grow in tropical swamps. As well as anchoring sediments and absorbing the crash of waves, mangroves can store carbon, help fish populations grow and boost local economies through tourism. </p><p>While nature-based solutions are often cheaper than building hard infrastructure, their funding makes up a "tiny fraction" of adaptation finance, the report authors wrote. An analysis of four global climate funds that spent $94 billion on adaptation projects found that just $12 billion went to nature-based solutions and little of this was spent implementing projects on the ground.</p><p>But little is known about their long-term effectiveness. At higher temperatures, the effects of climate change may be so great that they overwhelm natural defenses like mangroves.</p><p>By 2050, <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/rising-sea-levels-should-we-let-the-ocean-in-a-50704953/a-50704953" target="_blank">coastal floods</a> that used to hit once a century will strike many cities every year, according to a 2019 report on oceans by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the gold standard on climate science. This could force dense cities on low-lying coasts to build higher sea walls, like in Indonesia and South Korea, or evacuate entire communities from sinking islands, like in Fiji.</p><p>It's not a case of replacing infrastructure, said Matthias Garschagen, a geographer at Ludwig Maximilian University in Germany and IPCC author, who was not involved in the UNEP report. "The case for nature-based solutions is often misinterpreted as a battle... but they're part of a toolkit that we've ignored for too long."</p>
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