IPCC Fourth Assessment Report: Climate Change 2007
Climate Change 2007: Working Group II: Impacts, Adaptation and Vulnerability

4.4.9 Oceans and shallow seas

Properties, goods and services

Oceans cover over 71% of the Earth’s surface area from polar to tropical regions to a mean depth of 4,000 m, comprising about 14 billion km3, are a massive reservoir of inorganic carbon, yet contain only 698-708 Pg organic carbon, 13-23 Pg of which is in living and dead biomass (Figure 4.1; Denman et al., 2007, Section Despite low biomass, phytoplankton carries out almost half of global primary production, and is the basis of the marine food web (Field et al., 1998). Substantial biodiversity exists in both pelagic and benthic realms and along coastlines, in a diverse range of ecosystems from highly productive (e.g., upwelling regions) to those with low productivity (e.g., oceanic gyres). Ocean primary productivity depends on sunlight and nutrients supplied from deep waters (Sarmiento et al., 2004a). Marine ecosystems provide goods and services such as fisheries, provision of energy, recreation and tourism, CO2 sequestration and climate regulation, decomposition of organic matter and regeneration of nutrients and coastal protection – many of which are critical to the functioning of the Earth system (Chapter 5; Costanza et al., 1997; McLean et al., 2001, Sections 6.3.2, 6.3.4, 6.3.5, 6.4.5 and 6.4.6; Hassan et al., 2005, Table 18.2). Marine biodiversity supports ecosystem function and the services it provides (Worm et al., 2006) with over 1 billion people relying on fish as their main animal protein source, especially in developing nations (Pauly et al., 2005). Coastal zones, particularly low-lying areas, and the highly valuable local and global socioeconomic services they provide (e.g., agricultural land, human settlements and associated infrastructure and industry, aquaculture and fisheries and freshwater supply) are particularly vulnerable to climate change (McLean et al., 2001, Section 6.5; Hassan et al., 2005, Section 19.3.2, Table 19.2).

Key vulnerabilities

Since the TAR, literature has confirmed that salient vulnerable ecosystems are warm-water coral reefs (Box 4.4), cold-water corals, the Southern Ocean and marginal sea-ice ecosystems. Ocean uptake of CO2, resulting from increasing atmospheric CO2 concentrations, reduces surface ocean pH and carbonate ion concentrations, an impact that was overlooked in the TAR. This is expected to affect coral reefs, cold water corals, and ecosystems (e.g., the Southern Ocean), where aragonite (used by many organisms to make their shells or skeletons) will decline or become undersaturated. These and other ecosystems where calcareous organisms (e.g., pteropods, see Glossary) play an important role will become vulnerable this century (reviewed by Raven et al., 2005; Haugan et al., 2006; Table 4.1). Synergistic impacts of higher seawater temperatures and declining carbonate make these ecosystems even more vulnerable (e.g., Raven et al., 2005; Turley et al., 2006; Box 4.4). Marginal sea-ice and surrounding ecosystems are vulnerable to warming, particularly in the Northern Hemisphere (Sarmiento et al., 2004b; Christensen et al., 2007).

Box 4.4. Coral reefs: endangered by climate change?

Reefs are habitat for about a quarter of marine species and are the most diverse among marine ecosystems (Roberts et al., 2002; Buddemeier et al., 2004). They underpin local shore protection, fisheries, tourism (Chapter 6; Hoegh-Guldberg et al., 2000; Cesar et al., 2003; Willig et al., 2003; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2004, 2005) and, though supplying only about 2-5% of the global fisheries harvest, comprise a critical subsistence protein and income source in the developing world (Whittingham et al., 2003; Pauly et al., 2005; Sadovy, 2005).

Corals are affected by warming of surface waters (Chapter 6, Box 6.1; Reynaud et al., 2003; McNeil et al., 2004; McWilliams et al., 2005) leading to bleaching (loss of algal symbionts – Chapter 6, Box 6.1). Many studies incontrovertibly link coral bleaching to warmer sea surface temperature (e.g., McWilliams et al., 2005) and mass bleaching and coral mortality often results beyond key temperature thresholds (Chapter 6, Box 6.1). Annual or bi-annual exceedance of bleaching thresholds is projected at the majority of reefs worldwide by 2030 to 2050 (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999; Sheppard, 2003; Donner et al., 2005). After bleaching, algae quickly colonise dead corals, possibly inhibiting later coral recruitment (e.g., McClanahan et al., 2001; Szmant, 2001; Gardner et al., 2003; Jompa and McCook, 2003). Modelling predicts a phase switch to algal dominance on the Great Barrier Reef and Caribbean reefs in 2030 to 2050 (Wooldridge et al., 2005).

Coral reefs will also be affected by rising atmospheric CO2 concentrations ( Orr et al., 2005; Raven et al., 2005; Denman et al., 2007, Box 7.3) resulting in declining calcification. Experiments at expected aragonite concentrations demonstrated a reduction in coral calcification (Marubini et al., 2001; Langdon et al., 2003; Hallock, 2005), coral skeleton weakening (Marubini et al., 2003) and strong temperature dependence (Reynaud et al., 2003). Oceanic pH projections decrease at a greater rate and to a lower level than experienced over the past 20 million years (Caldeira and Wickett, 2003; Raven et al., 2005; Turley et al., 2006). Doubling CO2 will reduce calcification in aragonitic corals by 20%-60% (Kleypas et al., 1999; Kleypas and Langdon, 2002; Reynaud et al., 2003; Raven et al., 2005). By 2070 many reefs could reach critical aragonite saturation states (Feely et al., 2004; Orr et al., 2005), resulting in reduced coral cover and greater erosion of reef frameworks (Kleypas et al., 2001; Guinotte et al., 2003).

Adaptation potential (Hughes et al., 2003) by reef organisms requires further experimental and applied study (Coles and Brown, 2003; Hughes et al., 2003). Natural adaptive shifts to symbionts with +2°C resistance may delay demise of some reefs to roughly 2100 (Sheppard, 2003), rather than mid-century (Hoegh-Guldberg, 2005) although this may vary widely across the globe (Donner et al., 2005). Estimates of warm-water coral cover reduction in the last 20-25 years are 30% or higher (Wilkinson, 2004; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2005) due largely to increasing higher SST frequency (Hoegh-Guldberg, 1999). In some regions, such as the Caribbean, coral losses have been estimated at 80% (Gardner et al., 2003). Coral migration to higher latitudes with more optimal SST is unlikely, due both to latitudinally decreasing aragonite concentrations and projected atmospheric CO2 increases (Kleypas et al., 2001; Guinotte et al., 2003; Orr et al., 2005; Raven et al., 2005). Coral migration is also limited by lack of available substrate (Chapter 6, Section Elevated SST and decreasing aragonite have a complex synergy (Harvell et al., 2002; Reynaud et al., 2003; McNeil et al., 2004; Kleypas et al., 2005) but could produce major coral reef changes (Guinotte et al., 2003; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2005). Corals could become rare on tropical and sub-tropical reefs by 2050 due to the combined effects of increasing CO2 and increasing frequency of bleaching events (at 2-3 * CO2) (Kleypas and Langdon, 2002; Hoegh-Guldberg, 2005; Raven et al., 2005). Other climate change factors (such as sea-level rise, storm impact and aerosols) and non-climate factors (such as over-fishing, invasion of non-native species, pollution, nutrient and sediment load (although this could also be related to climate changes through changes to precipitation and river flow; Chapter 6, Box 6.1; Chapter 11, Box 11.3; Chapter 16)) add multiple impacts on coral reefs (Chapter 16, Box 16.2), increasing their vulnerability and reducing resilience to climate change (Koop et al., 2001; Kleypas and Langdon, 2002; Cole, 2003; Buddemeier et al., 2004; Hallock, 2005).


Climate change can impact marine ecosystems through ocean warming (Wang et al., 2004b), by increasing thermal stratification and reducing upwelling (Cox et al., 2000; Sarmiento et al., 2004a), sea level rise (IPCC, 2001), and through increases in wave height and frequency (Monahan et al., 2000; Wang et al., 2004b), loss of sea ice (Sarmiento et al., 2004b; Meehl et al., 2007; Christensen et al., 2007), increased risk of diseases in marine biota (Harvell et al., 2002) and decreases in the pH and carbonate ion concentration of the surface oceans (Caldeira and Wickett, 2003; Feely et al., 2004; Sabine et al., 2004; Raven et al., 2005).

Theoretically, nutrient speciation could be influenced by the lower pH expected this century (Zeebe and Wolf-Gladrow, 2001; Raven et al., 2005). Decreases in both upwelling and formation of deep water and increased stratification of the upper ocean will reduce the input of essential nutrients into the sunlit regions of oceans and reduce productivity (Cox et al., 2000; Loukos et al., 2003; Lehodey et al., 2003; Sarmiento et al., 2004a). In coastal areas and margins, increased thermal stratification may lead to oxygen deficiency, loss of habitats, biodiversity and distribution of species, and impact whole ecosystems (Rabalais et al., 2002). Changes to rainfall and nutrient flux from land may exacerbate these hypoxic events (Rabalais et al., 2002).

Projections of ocean biological response to climate warming by 2050 show contraction of the highly productive marginal sea-ice biome by 42% and 17% in Northern and Southern Hemispheres (Sarmiento et al., 2004b; see also Meehl et al., 2007; Christensen et al., 2007). The sea-ice biome accounts for a large proportion of primary production in polar waters and supports a substantial food web. As timing of the spring phytoplankton bloom is linked to the sea-ice edge, loss of sea ice (Walsh and Timlin, 2003) and large reductions of the total primary production in the marginal sea-ice biome in the Northern Hemisphere (Behrenfeld and Falkowski, 1997; Marra et al., 2003) would have strong effects, for example, on the productivity of the Bering Sea (Stabeno et al., 2001). Reductions in winter sea-ice will affect the reproduction, growth and development of fish, krill, and their predators, including seals and seal-dependent polar bears (e.g., Barber and Iacozza, 2004; Box 4.3), leading to further changes in abundance and distribution of marine species (Chapter 15, Section 15.4.3). An expansion by 4.0% (Northern Hemisphere) and 9.4% (Southern), and of the sub-polar gyre biome by 16% (Northern) and 7% (Southern), has been projected for the permanently stratified sub-tropical gyre biome with its low productivity. This effect has now been observed in the North Pacific and Atlantic (McClain et al., 2004; Sarmiento et al., 2004b). A contraction by 11% of the seasonally stratified sub-tropical gyre is also projected in both hemispheres by 2050 due to climate warming. These changes are likely to have significant impacts on marine ecosystem productivity globally, with uncertainties in projections of NPP using six mainly IS92a-based scenarios narrowing to an increase of between 0.7% and 8.1% by mid-century (?Tglobal ~1.5-3°C).

Changes to planktonic and benthic community composition and productivity have been observed in the North Sea since 1955 (Clark and Frid, 2001) and since the mid-1980s may have reduced the survival of young cod (Beaugrand et al., 2003). Large shifts in pelagic biodiversity (Beaugrand et al., 2002) and in fish community composition have been seen (Genner et al., 2004; Perry et al., 2005). Changes in seasonality or recurrence of hydrographic events or productive periods could be affected by trophic links to many marine populations, including exploited or cultured populations (Stenseth et al., 2002, 2003; Platt et al., 2003; Llope et al., 2006). Elevated temperatures have increased mortality of winter flounder eggs and larvae (Keller and Klein-Macphee, 2000) and have led to later spawning migrations (Sims et al., 2004). A 2°C rise in sea surface temperature (SST) would result in removal of Antarctic bivalves and limpets from the Southern Ocean (Peck et al., 2004). Tuna populations may spread towards presently temperate regions, based on predicted warming of surface water and increasing primary production at mid- and high latitudes (Loukos et al., 2003).

Marine mammals, birds, cetaceans and pinnipeds (seals, sea lions and walruses), which feed mainly on plankton, fish and squid, are vulnerable to climate change-driven changes in prey distribution, abundance and community composition in response to climatic factors (Learmonth et al., 2006). Changing water temperature also has an effect on the reproduction of cetaceans and pinnipeds, indirectly through prey abundance, either through extending the time between individual breeding attempts, or by reducing breeding condition of the mother (Whitehead, 1997). Current extreme climatic events provide an indication of potential future effects. For example, the warm-water phase of ENSO is associated with large-scale changes in plankton abundance and associated impacts on food webs (Hays et al., 2005), and changes to behaviour (Lusseau et al., 2004), sex ratio (Vergani et al., 2004) and feeding and diet (Piatkowski et al., 2002) of marine mammals.

Melting Arctic ice-sheets will reduce ocean salinities (IPCC, 2001), causing species-specific shifts in the distribution and biomass of major constituents of Arctic food webs, including poleward shifts in communities and the potential loss of some polar species (such as the narwhal, Monodon monoceros). Migratory whales (e.g., grey whale, Eschrichtius robustus), that spend summer in Arctic feeding grounds, are likely to experience disruptions in their food sources (Learmonth et al., 2006). Nesting biology of sea turtles is strongly affected by temperature, both in timing and in the determination of the sex ratio of hatchlings (Hays et al., 2003), but implications for population size are unknown. A predicted sea-level rise of 0.5 m will eliminate up to 32% of sea-turtle nesting beaches in the Caribbean (Fish et al., 2005).

Surface ocean pH has decreased by 0.1 unit due to absorption of anthropogenic CO2 emissions (equivalent to a 30% increase in hydrogen ion concentration) and is predicted to decrease by up to a further 0.3-0.4 units by 2100 (Caldeira and Wickett, 2003). This may impact a wide range of organisms and ecosystems (e.g., coral reefs, Box 4.4, reviewed by Raven et al., 2005), including juvenile planktonic, as well as adult, forms of benthic calcifying organisms (e.g., echinoderms, gastropods and shellfish), and will affect their recruitment (reviewed by Turley et al., 2006). Polar and sub-polar surface waters and the Southern Ocean will be aragonite under-saturated by 2100 (Orr et al., 2005) and Arctic waters will be similarly threatened (Haugan et al., 2006). Organisms using aragonite to make their shells (e.g., pteropods) will be at risk and this will threaten ecosystems such as the Southern and Arctic Oceans in which they play a dominant role in the food web and carbon cycling (Orr et al., 2005; Haugan et al., 2006).

Cold-water coral ecosystems exist in almost all the world’s oceans and their aerial coverage could equal or exceed that of warm-water coral reefs (Freiwald et al., 2004; Guinotte et al., 2006). They harbour a distinct and rich ecosystem, provide habitats and nursery grounds for a variety of species, including commercial fish and numerous new species previously thought to be extinct (Raven et al., 2005). These geologically ancient, long-lived, slow-growing and fragile reefs will suffer reduced calcification rates and, as the aragonite saturation horizon moves towards the ocean surface, large parts of the oceans will cease to support them by 2100 (Feely et al., 2004; Orr et al., 2005; Raven et al., 2005; Guinotte et al., 2006). Since cold-water corals do not have symbiotic algae but depend on extracting food particles sinking from surface waters or carried by ocean currents, they are also vulnerable to changes to ocean currents, primary productivity and flux of food particles (Guinotte et al., 2006). Warm-water coral reefs are also sensitive to multiple impacts including increased SST and decreasing aragonite concentrations within this century (Box 4.4).