With increasing temperatures leading to heat waves affecting the North American continent and the world, not only people and species on land are affected, but also our marine ecosystem. This is known as marine heat waves. Marine heat waves are periods when the ocean’s temperature is above the 90th percentile for a specific length of time (NOAA, 2013). This means temperatures are warmer than 90% of the previous observations recorded for that given period (NOAA, 2013). They can last weeks, months, or years (NOAA, 2013). These kinds of heat waves are mainly characterized by their duration and intensity. Researchers predict these waves will happen more frequently and for longer due to climate change and global warming, thus inevitably altering our marine ecosystem in the future (IUCN, 2021).
Marine Heat Waves and Marine Ecosystems
Marine Heat Waves cause “stress” to coral reefs and other marine species and ecosystems (NOAA, 2013). When species and ecosystems are constantly exposed to high temperatures for an extended period, it causes them to break down and die (IUCN, 2021). Due to the heat waves, coral reefs and algae, which provide a healthy environment for fish and other living organisms in the sea, will break down faster (Beaudin É and Bracco A, 2022). This negatively impacts the marine ecosystem. Coral reefs protect people from storms and hurricanes and are a food source for marine life (IUCN, 2021). Since marine species cannot withstand a dramatic increase in temperatures for an extended period, most species end up dying, thus resulting in extinction and biodiversity loss(Beaudin É and Bracco A, 2022).
As of Friday, July 21, 2023, it has been reported that ocean temperatures in the Florida Keys have been hitting a record high above the average of 85 Celsius, causing coral reefs to bleach (lose their color) sooner (NBC, 2023). Since marine heat waves are happening more frequently due to climate change, coral reefs are bleaching faster and the marine ecosystem is changing (NBC, 2023). This example is one of many that is occurring around the world. If there is no drastic change in efforts to slow ocean warming and counteract the effects we are experiencing, we will see many of our marine ecosystems collapse.
What can be done?
(Adapted from the International Union for Conservation of Nature – Marine Heatwaves)
Governments and policymakers can begin investing in nature-based technologies that significantly contribute to avoiding the use and reliance on fossil fuels (IUCN, 2021). More research can be done and information collected to have improved warning systems. Also, regional measures can be enhanced to support ocean resilience and protect marine ecosystems from heat waves (IUCN, 2021). This issue requires a broad range of stakeholders and people to make marine heat waves less frequent and intense. This means we all have an obligation to protect our marine ecosystems!
“With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea. No matter where on Earth you live. Most of the oxygen in the atmosphere is generated by the sea.”
“Our past, our present, and whatever remains of our future, absolutely depend on what we do now.”
– Sylvia Earle, Oceanographer
Beaudin É and Bracco A (2022) How Marine Heatwaves Impact Life in the Ocean. Front. Young Minds. 10:712528. doi: 10.3389/frym.2022.712528
International Union for Conservation of Nature (2021, October 1). Marine heatwaves. IUCN. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from https://www.iucn.org/resources/issues-brief/marine-heatwaves#:~:text=Governments%20must%20invest%20in%20nature,communities%20and%20ecosystems%20from%20MHWs
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (2023, July 13). The ongoing marine heat waves in U.S. Waters, explained. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration U.S. Department of Commerce. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from https://www.noaa.gov/news/ongoing-marine-heat-waves-in-us-waters-explained
NBC (2023, July 21). Florida Keys coral reefs are already bleaching as water temperatures hit record highs, scientists say. NBC News. Retrieved July 24, 2023, from https://www.nbcnews.com/science/environment/florida-keys-coral-reefs-are-already-bleaching-water-temperatures-hit-rcna95619
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