What do ocean creatures think of warming?

Article by Isabel Key and Mina Frost.

Higher temperatures and less oxygen could cause extinction of some species [11,5]. Deep sea creatures are particularly vulnerable, because the deep sea has historically had stable temperatures, so they have not evolved to cope with rapid changes [11].

REPRODUCTION: whether turtle eggs develop as a boy or girl depends on the temperature of the surrounding sand [3]. In some populations, it’s predicted that only 2-3 turtles out of 100 will be male by 2030 [4]. Few females would be able to find mates, so the population could crash [4].

TIMING: climate change makes it warmer earlier in the Spring, so animals adjust the timing of their behaviour [6]. Changes in the timing of phytoplankton life cycles are central to this problem [6]. Phytoplankton are tiny plant-like organisms that float in the ocean [8]. When the light, temperature, and nutrients are all just right, phytoplankton replicate explosively, causing huge blooms which last just a few weeks [8]. With global warming, blooms happen at a different time of year [6]. Phytoplankton are at the bottom of the food chain [10]. In general, organisms higher up the food chain adjust their timings slower than those lower down, meaning they become out of sync with their food [9]. This is causing declines in species such as cod [12].

MIGRATION: many marine animals move to stay in water that is a good temperature for their bodies [2]. In general, climate change is making them move towards the poles or deeper down in the ocean [2]. This causes loss of synchrony in space (rather than time), troubling e.g. puffins and whales [13]. Right whales now travel further to find their food that has moved in response to the warming ocean [1]. This brings them closer to shipping lanes, increasing the chance of collisions with boats, and accelerating decline of this endangered species [1].

Climate change has a whole cocktail of effects on the oceans – we have covered but a few [13,7]. This makes the situation far worse for species that are already struggling from other human pressures, like fishing and pollution [7].


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