PERHAPS BECAUSE THE OCEAN covers two-thirds of our planet, we think we are intimately familiar with it. But even on the clearest day, we see from the shore only a tiny fraction of the ocean’s expanse and sense only a few of the innumerable ways it shapes our life.
It’s difficult to overstate how vast the ocean is or how deeply it is intertwined with the health of the planet, particularly our weather and climate systems, and the economy. Last week, the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released a special report detailing scientifically measured changes that are taking place in the ocean and its icy sibling, the cryosphere (glaciers, sea ice, etc.). For those of us who live near the ocean, however, it’s not news that the ocean is changing and affecting our communities. It’s no longer a question of whether or not sea level is rising, but how much it’s rising and how quickly. Our friends and neighbors working in the fishing industry see differences in the marine ecosystem. And we all observe that weather patterns are changing, including more and bigger storms.
The IPCC report is the result of more than 100 scientists from 36 countries who referenced nearly 7,000 scientific publications and addressed over 31,000 comments from reviewers. It shows that the ocean is changing in fundamental and complex ways that should be of concern to even the most landlocked of us. Many of these changes are occurring over the horizon, deep beneath the surface, or over long periods, making it difficult for humans to perceive them. But decades-long observations of the ocean and atmosphere, as well as new technologies and ways of looking at the ocean, are scientifically documenting these changes.
The ocean is the ultimate source of rain that waters our crops and provides the water coming from our faucets. It is a critical part of our national defense and our shared national heritage. The ocean puts food on our tables and is a driver of local, state, and regional economies. But it’s not just places near the shore that should pay attention. Hurricane Irene, in 2011, dumped more than 10 inches of rain in Vermont and caused widespread damage far from the coast. Floods this year throughout the Mississippi River Valley, as far north as Minnesota, are directly tied to weather patterns originating in the Gulf of Mexico and Pacific Ocean.
So it’s with good reason that we should take notice of the IPCC report, particularly because its findings are based on the best available scientific data. These data document that the ocean is warming, sea levels are rising, sea ice is disappearing, surface waters are becoming more acidic, and oxygen minimum zones within the ocean depths are expanding. The results indicate that our ocean planet is showing fundamental signs of change, that these changes are taking place faster as time goes on, and that human activity has a direct role in them.
It troubles some that, alongside these findings, researchers also report their uncertainty, which is often seen as a weakness of science. In fact, the opposite is true: Some of the findings have lower certainty because we need better observations and data at certain time or spatial scales. Thus, the report also shows where we should next turn our attention to improve our understanding and decrease that uncertainty. Doing so is a hallmark of the scientific process.
The question is, is it too late to do anything?
No, it is not. Technological solutions, such as advances in energy efficiency, as well as market-based solutions to bring down the price of alternative energy, suggest that society has the tools to minimize and in some cases turn back these changes. This will require conscious decisions by all of us to support new approaches to energy production and supply, coastal and inland flood plain development, and transportation strategies, as well as for the sciences to continue to provide new and better data that help us understand our changing ocean.
Long-term ocean observatories in challenging locations, such as undersea ice, combined with autonomous data-gathering undersea vehicles throughout the global ocean, can help provide this information. Such efforts are good for the health of our ocean planet, for a stable economy, and for all of our livelihoods.
The decisions we make today are important for ourselves and for future generations. Ultimately, this is the only planet we have. We need to take heed of what the science is telling us and take better care of our collective home.
Richard W. Murray is deputy director and vice president for research at the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution.