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Our Oceans Are in Dire Shape, But Without Them All Life on Land -- Human, Plant and Animal -- Is Totally Screwed

Global warming's impact on oceans will be severe, not only for marine life but also for all life on land.

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Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs

Increasing ocean acidification also threatens coral reefs. Recent estimates suggest that coral reefs might disappear altogether by the end of the century.

Coral reefs have been referred to as the "rainforests of the sea." They make up only 10 percent of the world's oceans yet they contain some of the world's most diverse ecosystems. Coral reefs provide a home for and feed about 25 percent of the world's marine life, including crustaceans such as crabs, lobsters and shrimp; echinoderms, such as sea cucumbers, sea urchins and starfish; fish; mollusks; sea turtles; sponges and worms; and also sea birds like albatroses, herons, pelicans and boobies.

Typically located in shallow and warm ocean waters, coral reefs also provide shoreline protection. For example, the reefs near the Maldives help this island create a barrier against rising sea levels.

The extinction of coral reefs would not only jeopardize the lives of marine species that rely on them for shelter and food, but threaten the shorelines of low-lying island states already suffering the impacts of rising sea levels.

Global Warming: Air and Ocean

Global warming is typically talked about in terms of air temperature or earth surface temperature. Recently, NASA's Goddard Institute for Space Studies reported that 2010 was the hottest year on record.

A new study conducted by the National Center for Atmospheric Research (NCAR) found that the ocean has been absorbing much of increased temperatures. As with the CO2 absorbed by the oceans, these temperatures are soaked up and moved toward the bottom of the oceans. And again, as with the CO2, the warmer temperatures do not disappear but will eventually return to the surface. The earth's temperatures would then be doubly impacted: first, by the greenhouse gas emissions already in the air and causing global warming; second by the temperatures and CO2 returning from the ocean.

What Can We Do?

The only way to reduce ocean acidification is to reduce the level of CO2 emissions. Increased efficiency of buildings could help reduce the amount of energy needed, and producing the energy needed through solar and wind energy would emit less greenhouse gas emissions.

Marine biologists and chemists have argued for a Clean Air Act for the seas at the federal level. Last year, President Obama announced the first National Ocean Policy and created a National Ocean Council to establish it. One of its numerous duties, including managing the spatial planning of marine areas, the policy would seek to preserve ocean quality.

Oceanographers also recommend that when the international negotiations of the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change discuss the reduction of CO2 emissions, they explicitly consider the presence of CO2 in the oceans. Given how stalled movement has been in the federal and the international arena on passing legistlation and reaching an international agreement to reduce greenhouse gas emissions, it remains to be seen how long it will take for the effects of CO2 on oceans to be recognized, taken into account and addressed.

Tina Gerhardt is an independent journalist who covers climate change, international negotiations and energy policy. Her work has appeared in AlterNet, Grist, Environment News Service, In These Times, the Progressive and the Nation.

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