Ocean Tipping Points

Anthropogenic pressures persistently alter the Earth’s natural resources and ecosystems. Some of these changes can be amplified by climate change, and may become irreversible if the issues of climate change are not addressed. One emerging property resulting from climate change is ocean tipping points.

The ocean covers more than 70% of the Earth’s surface, and about 94% of species can be found in the ocean (Clendenning, 2021). The ocean provides numerous benefits to humans, plants, and animals. The benefits range from recreational activities, food, and medical purposes (Clendenning, 2021). Society relies on the ocean as it provides “half the world’s oxygen and absorbs about 50% of the world’s carbon dioxide emissions” (Clendenning, 2021). It is clear that society needs the ocean for its benefits. However, current anthropogenic pressures for example pollution, greenhouse gas emissions subject our oceans to great harm and expedited deterioration if immediate actions are not taken. 

The term “tipping point,” as referenced in environmental literature, is leading to an “abrupt change and irreversible shifts between native ecosystem states” (Dakos et al., 2019). Therefore, if a system is pushed past its threshold, it can create a cascading effect that affects the entire mainstream ecosystem and other parts of the environment that rely on the central ecosystem to support itself (Dakos et al., 2019). For example, if a pond is contaminated by road run-off, the pond provides water, food, and habitat to species for survival. If the pond is not regularly cleaned or there is no action taken to reduce road run-off, it will become highly contaminated, and eventually reach its tipping point with irreversible consequences. Past this tipping point, the river will no longer have fresh, clean water, and the species or ecosystem that relied on the pond will either die or have to find new means of survival. This creates a cascade effect as all the components that relied on the pond are now in jeopardy. 

There are several factors that contribute to ocean tipping points. Three of these factors will be highlighted in this article and include:

Ocean Warming: 

Marine organisms inhabiting the ocean have an optimal temperature required for proper physiological functioning (Heinze et al., 2021). Numerous organisms are at risk when the temperature rises above the average temperature. Despite the Paris Agreement  to limit warming to 1.5 degrees celsius, studies set by the United Nations 2030 Agenda have shown that our major coral reef species will go extinct by the time the goal is reached (Heinze et al., 2021). The outcome of ocean warming not only affects organisms but global fisheries that rely heavily on sea species to support their industry. With the continuous release of greenhouse gas emissions and the rise of global temperatures, our oceans will inevitably warm. As a result of these effects, ocean temperatures will continue to rise and harm underwater life (Heinze et al., 2021)


Species that inhabit the ocean exist in seawater with sufficiently high concentrations of dissolved oxygen in the ocean (Heinze et al., 2021). When a significant amount of ocean warming occurs, it decreases the solubility of oxygen in the sea (Heinze et al., 2021). This creates an environment that is hypoxic for surrounding species and therefore causes species to die off. With increased warming, the rate at which oxygen is consumed at a faster rate by species (Heinze et al., 2021). Furthermore, the decrease in ocean mixing under warming temperatures results in a decrease in oxygen levels from the surface of the ocean to the inside of the ocean. In addition to warming, the result of other anthropogenic effects such as aerosols, garbage, and pollution all result in decreased oxygen levels in the ocean (Heinze et al., 2021). 

Ocean Acidification: 

Ocean Acidification is the process of carbon dioxide uptake from the ocean that results in a decrease in pH levels (What Is Ocean Acidification?, n.d.) This increase of carbon dioxide intake causes the ocean to be acidic (What Is Ocean Acidification?, n.d.).  The combined effects from ocean warming, deoxygenation, and pollution (from either gabrage or harmful aerosols) result in the impact of ocean acidification (Heinze et al., 2021). “Over the past 200 years the world’s oceans have absorbed more than 150 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide”(NOAA Fisheries, n.d.). These increased ocean carbon dioxide concentrations are causing an imbalance in the ocean and creating conditions that degrade oysters, clams, and coral reefs (NOAA Fisheries, n.d.). This ultimately affects how much future carbon emissions can be stored in the ocean and life under water,  and how society and aquatic species are affected in the future. 

All in all the above demonstrates that the ocean is subject to many different pressures and the ocean is reaching its tipping point due to the combined effects of these various factors. The impact from these factors directly affects the marine chain supply, tourism opportunities and makes the ocean inhabitable.

“We need the ocean, and the ocean needs us. Our ocean is our greatest asset. It gives us food, water, and clean energy, and it needs our help.” Ocean Wise

Call to Action: Here are five ways you can help support the ocean! Adapted from Ocean Wise (Ocean Wise: Take Action)

1) Buy Sustainable Seafood!

For the sea food lovers, responsibly buying seafood supports initiatives that respect and implement sustainable fishing practices when harvesting fish, and prevents overfishing! This also contributes towards raising awareness among fishermen on the importance of protecting the ocean for the good of humanity. 

2) Join a Shore Clean Up!

Depending on where you live or if you are in the mood for a little road trip, take the advantage of going to a beach and picking up trash with your local community! “Fish in the North Pacific ingest 12,000 to 24,000 tons of plastic each year” (Ocean Plastics Pollution, n.d.) and this can cause harm to the fish. We also may be ingesting these plastics when consuming this fish. If you are interested in contributing towards preventing the extinction of certain fish species and making our oceans healthier, grab a trash bag, gloves, and friends to support the ocean today!

3) Pledge to Save the Ocean!

There are many ocean pledges that allow you to have an opinion on how to support the ocean whether that be through monetary donations or volunteering your time with specific organizations. This can be used as an awareness tool, the more pledges the more other people can be aware of the initiatives. 

4) Adopt a Whale (Adopt A Killer Whale)

This is a program by Ocean Wise which has successfully sponsored different whales to support their health, safety, and extinction. While adopting a whale you are creating a safe habitable space for other species too and making the ocean an environment that is suited for proper whale development. Did you know that “whales provide 50% of our oxygen?” (Climate Change., n.d.)

5) Educate Yourself!

Numerous great resources are available that you can use to supplement this article so that you can have a well rounded understanding of just how important the ocean is in creating a healthy environment for society and wildlife!

Resources Available:   

  1. Ocean Tipping Point Infographic 

Ocean Tipping Points provides articles and news surrounding the ocean and infographics that focus on different species that are affected by ocean degradation for example coral reefs. 

  1. National Geographic Education Resource Library 

The National Geographic Education resource library provides resources that allow for “exploring oceans” through a series of photos and Google Earth images. You will be able to navigate through the different parts of the ocean and gain a better understanding of life under water. 

  1. World Wildlife Fund

The World Wildlife Fund provides resources and statistics about the ocean and how you can further your support for protecting the ocean.

  1. Nature Serve

Nature Serve, a non-profit organization, created a guide that can be used to manage ocean tipping points!


Clendenning, A. (2021, April 6). Twenty fun facts about the ocean. https://kealakai.byuh.edu/twenty-fun-facts-about-the-ocean

Climate Change – Whale and Dolphin Conservation. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://uk.whales.org/our-4-goals/create-healthy-seas/climate-change/

Dakos, V., Matthews, B., Hendry, A. P., Levine, J., Loeuille, N., Norberg, J., Nosil, P., Scheffer, M., & de Meester, L. (2019). Ecosystem tipping points in an evolving world. Nature Ecology & Evolution 2019 3:3, 3(3), 355–362. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41559-019-0797-2

Heinze, C., Blenckner, T., Martins, H., Rusiecka, D., Döscher, R., Gehlen, M., Gruber, N., Holland, E., Hov, Ø., Joos, F., Matthews, J. B. R., Rødven, R., & Wilson, S. (2021). The quiet crossing of ocean tipping points. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, 118(9). https://doi.org/10.1073/PNAS.2008478118/SUPPL_FILE/PNAS.2008478118.SAPP.PDF

Ocean Plastics Pollution. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://www.biologicaldiversity.org/campaigns/ocean_plastics/

Understanding Ocean Acidification | NOAA Fisheries. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://www.fisheries.noaa.gov/insight/understanding-ocean-acidification

What is Ocean Acidification? (n.d.). Retrieved June 29, 2022, from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/acidification.html

What is Overfishing? Facts, Effects and Overfishing Solutions. (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://www.worldwildlife.org/threats/overfishingWhy should we care about the ocean? (n.d.). Retrieved June 27, 2022, from https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/why-care-about-ocean.html

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