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Oceans Highlighted in Dire White House Climate Report: 3 Things to Know
By Amy McDermott
Last week, the White House released the Fourth National Climate Assessment, a dire warning on climate change risks and impacts across the U.S. The report does not mince words. In 29 chapters and five appendices, it outlines grave threats to life, livelihoods, national security and the U.S. economy, caused by sea level rise, extreme temperatures, severe storms, fires, flooding and other climatic changes.
"Earth's climate is now changing faster than at any point in the history of modern civilization, primarily as a result of human activities," is its first sentence.
Oceans have a dedicated chapter, which is neither warm, nor fuzzy. Yearly losses could total hundreds of billions of dollars by century's end, it concludes, and cutting emissions is the only way to avoid the worst of it. Here are the main takeaways for the oceans, paraphrased and condensed for brevity.
1. Ocean Ecosystems Are Changing
Greenhouse gas emissions do three big things to seawater: They make it warmer, more acidic and less oxygenated. The combo packs a punch for undersea ecosystems, where changing temperatures and chemistry make some places less livable for marine life.
Critters that can adapt, do. But plenty can't keep up with the way-too-fast pace of change. The result is widespread restructuring of underwater habitats, especially near the tropics and poles, where a few hardy species are thriving, and many more are moving (or dying) out.
More than 123 million people (39 percent of the population) live in U.S. coastal counties, where they depend on healthy oceans for jobs, storm protection and recreation. When those habitats are compromised, so are their benefits.
2. Fisheries and Fishermen Are at Risk
Ocean warming makes fisheries harder to manage.
As temperatures change, commercially-important fish are changing too, sometimes relocating north or south, or into deeper, cooler waters. All the reshuffling makes fishing less predictable, and more of a financial gamble for fishermen.
In every region except Alaska, fishermen will lose the gamble as catches plummet by as much as 47 percent in tropical Hawaii and the Gulf of Mexico. Alaska and the Bering Sea could see surges in fishing potential, but the reshuffle will hurt U.S. fisheries more than it helps.
3. Extreme Events Will Intensify
Abrupt heat waves and cold snaps are one symptom of the temperature variability that characterizes climate change. Such sudden, concentrated doses of heat or cold can magnify climate effects that are still subtle today, offering a preview of the new normal in 50 to 100 years. Extremes of acidity or deoxygenation, too, can offer a window into the future.
Consider, for example, 2015's West Coast ocean heat wave and subsequent toxic algal bloom. The algae made Dungeness crabs unsafe to eat, shuttering the fishery in a closure that was ultimately declared a federal disaster. Fishermen can expect more algae as temperatures climb.
Extreme events can motivate change, and anticipating extremes can buy time for fishermen to adapt. But, the report says, there is no substitute for reducing greenhouse gas emissions.
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"Faced with global warming, rising sea levels, and the climate-related extremes they intensify, the question is no longer whether some communities will retreat—moving people and assets out of harm's way—but why, where, when, and how they will retreat," the study begins.
The researchers suggest that it is time to rethink retreat, which is often seen as a last resort and a sign of weakness. Instead, it should be seen as the smart option and an opportunity to build new communities.
"We propose a reconceptualization of retreat as a suite of adaptation options that are both strategic and managed," the paper states. "Strategy integrates retreat into long-term development goals and identifies why retreat should occur and, in doing so, influences where and when."
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"There's a definite rhetoric of, 'We're going to build it back better. We're going to win. We're going to beat this. Something technological is going to come and it's going to save us,'" said A.R. Siders, an assistant professor with the disaster research center at the University of Delaware and lead author of the paper, to the New York Times. "It's like, let's step back and think for a minute. You're in a fight with the ocean. You're fighting to hold the ocean in place. Maybe that's not the battle we want to pick."
Rethinking retreat could make it a strategic, efficient, and equitable way to adapt to the climate crisis, the study says.
Dr. Siders pointed out that it has happened before. She noted that in the 1970s, the small town of Soldiers Grove, Wisconsin moved itself out of the flood plain after one too many floods. The community found and reoriented the business district to take advantage of highway traffic and powered it entirely with solar energy, as the New York Times reported.
That's an important lesson now that rising sea levels pose a catastrophic risk around the world. Nearly 75 percent of the world's cities are along shorelines. In the U.S. alone coastline communities make up nearly 40 percent of the population— more than 123 million people, which is why Siders and her research team are so forthright about the urgency and the complexities of their findings, according to Harvard Magazine.
Some of those complexities include, coordinating moves across city, state or even international lines; cultural and social considerations like the importance of burial grounds or ancestral lands; reparations for losses or damage to historic practices; long-term social and psychological consequences; financial incentives that often contradict environmental imperatives; and the critical importance of managing retreat in a way that protects vulnerable and poor populations and that doesn't exacerbate past injustices, as Harvard Magazine reported.
If communities could practice strategic retreats, the study says, doing so would not only reduce the need for people to choose among bad options, but also improve their circumstances.
"It's a lot to think about," said Siders to Harvard Magazine. "And there are going to be hard choices. It will hurt—I mean, we have to get from here to some new future state, and that transition is going to be hard.…But the longer we put off making these decisions, the worse it will get, and the harder the decisions will become."
To help the transition, the paper recommends improved access to climate-hazard maps so communities can make informed choices about risk. And, the maps need to be improved and updated regularly, the paper said as the New York Times reported.
"It's not that everywhere should retreat," said Dr. Siders to the New York Times. "It's that retreat should be an option. It should be a real viable option on the table that some places will need to use."
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