Carbon dioxide, or CO2, is an important gas in Earth's atmosphere. It absorbs infrared radiation from the sun, which helps to keep our planet warm enough to live on. But what happens when we add too much CO2 to our atmosphere by burning fossil fuels, such as petroleum and coal? The result is climate change.
Our planet is actually made up of complex systems that both rely on and affect one another, and when one part of a system is out of balance, it can have a ripple effect across other systems. We can actually change our climate!
So what does that mean for our oceans and how will it impact our salty friends?
1. Lobsters are on the move.
Rising atmospheric CO2 results in rising ocean temperatures. Many who make the ocean their home are adapted to a specific range in temperature, and when it gets too warm, it affects their breathing, their ability to have babies and their personal survival.
Some animals can move, even going up or down in the water column, when the temperature changes. But most can't just pack up and leave.
In the past two decades, the numbers of lobsters found in waters off of southern New England dropped drastically, but their numbers have gone way up in the Gulf of Maine and into Canada.
It's not that the entire lobster population took a long walk. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration , the water to the south warmed to a point where lobsters died and their offspring didn't survive, and the water in the Gulf of Maine has now warmed to an ideal temperature for lobsters to thrive.
But the Gulf of Maine is continuing to warm, too. We don't know what the future holds for lobsters and others who depend on a narrow temperature range to survive.
But we do know that where and if they live affects those they eat ...
... and those who eat them.
When lobsters disappear from one area, it's not as if those who made their living fishing for them can pack up and move, either. Instead, they have to find new jobs and other ways to live, which isn't any easier than lobstering.
2. Islands are drowning.
Credit: Sayzie Koldys
Have you ever had a ball or a car tire that seemed to deflate when it got cold? Back in 2015, a lot of New England Patriots fans tried to use physics to explain Tom Brady's deflated footballs. When air or water cools, the molecules slow down, get closer and take up less space.
But when air or water is warmed, the volume increases. This means that when oceans warm, sea level rises. Also, warmer air temperatures mean melting glaciers. As the fresh water from the glaciers runs into rivers and oceans, the volume of water increases and seas rise.
This is a problem right now for atolls, or ring-shaped reef islands, that are only inches higher than the ocean that surrounds them.
3. Seals face homelessness.
Polar bears, some seals and certain sea birds depend on year-round sea ice in the Arctic for their survival. As the sea ice disappears, polar bears — who eat mostly seal meat — lose their hunting grounds and are in danger of drowning.
Seals lose their homes and hiding places, and gulls and little auks lose protection from predators and their fishing grounds in the cracks between the ice floes.
It's expected that by the time current college students are middle-aged, ice in the Arctic will melt completely every summer.
4. Clams face homelessness, too.
If you have an aquarium, you might know that the pH of the water is very important. More CO2 in our atmosphere means more CO2 in our oceans. When this mixes with water, it sets off a series of chemical processes that lower the pH, or acidify, the ocean.
These processes essentially steal the materials that organisms like corals, snails and clams need to build their shells.
5. Coral is a stress mess.
Coral bleaching looks like it sounds. Brightly colored reefs turn white. This is because corals get their brilliant color from the algae with which the coral animal shares its calcium carbonate skeleton.
The algae produces food for the coral, and in exchange, the coral gives the algae a place to live. But when the coral gets stressed, often because someone's turned up the temperature, it gets cranky and evicts the algae.
When the algae goes, so does the color. Unfortunately, so does the coral's dinner. Without algae to produce their food, the coral can't get enough to eat and eventually it starves.
According to the Nature Conservancy, coral reefs provide habitat for 25 percent of all marine species. They also support fishing in many communities, and their beauty brings tourist dollars to remote places that would otherwise struggle for income.
But all is not lost!
A coral reef that was declared dead in 2003 was found colorful and full of fish life once again in 2015. Thanks to its remote location and the fact that the place scientists have dubbed Coral Castles is in a marine protected area, or MPA — so there's no fishing and little pollution — the coral was able to revive.
So what can we do to protect our oceans and our friends who live in it as our climate changes?
- Reduce the change by using less fossil fuel.
- Call your senators and pressure them to regulate businesses that greatly increase atmospheric CO2, and to enact policies that secure MPAs, where marine life can avoid additional stresses like overfishing.
- March For Science on April 22!