A new United Nations report on the impacts of climate change gives a bleak outlook for the world’s oceans and ice caps unless global warming is significantly curbed soon. 

The report comes from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a group of 100 scientists from 36 countries, including the United States. It shows that releases of carbon dioxide and other gases from the production and burning of fossil fuels and other human activity have already caused the oceans to be warmer, more acidic and less productive.

Taylor Shellfish crews haul up oysters from Samish Bay, Washington.

Taylor Shellfish crews haul up oysters from Samish Bay, Washington.

Katie Campbell, KCTS9/EarthFix

Some of these consequences are playing out in the Pacific Northwest.  The report says there’s a very high confidence “marine heatwaves have … doubled in frequency since 1982 and are increasing in intensity.” 

Earlier this month, federal scientists announced the return of a massive area of warm water off the Oregon coast.  It’s expected to rival an unprecedented marine heat wave nicknamed “The Blob” that disrupted ocean ecosystems back in 2014-15.

The Oceans report also points to another phenomenon that’s been causing problems in the Pacific Northwest for more than a decade.

Worldwide, the report says that “by absorbing more CO2,” it’s virtually certain “the ocean has undergone increasing surface acidification.”

“Oregon was one of the places where the effects of ocean acidification were first noticed,” said Jack Barth, an Oregon State University oceanographer and co-chair of the Oregon Coordinating Council on Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia (low oxygen conditions).

“And from that … Oregon scientists and policymakers have been bringing this issue right to the fore.”

Shellfish growers in Oregon recognized the problem of ocean acidification more than a decade ago after mass losses of oyster larvae. When ocean water becomes too acidic, it prevents marine organisms like oysters from building shell.  Salmon and crab and other commercially important species are experiencing impacts as well.   

Oregon ocean acidification and hypoxia council approved a state-wide action plan late this summer to start addressing the issues related to ocean change.  The plan includes calling for more science and monitoring of ocean conditions, working with coastal communities to start adapting to the changes and incorporating and funding ocean acidification and hypoxia-specific projects and work at the state agency level.

“The world is recognizing that the ocean is changing, and it’s man’s influence on that,” Barth said. “The importance of the Oregon plan is it recommends the specific actions the state can do – all the way from the agency level to private individuals – things we can do to help turn the tide on this challenge.”

U.S. Rep. Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon introduced a House resolution Wednesday “expressing the need for immediate climate action” in response to the U.N. oceans report. The resolution calls for investing in wetland restoration and ocean renewable energy, reducing the maritime industry’s carbon footprint, and exploring the ocean’s carbon sequestration potential. 

The push to view the ocean as not only a “victim of climate change, but a powerful source of solutions” is an idea that has been gaining traction.  It was the focus of an article published in the journal Science Wednesday and co-authored by OSU scientist Jane Lubchenco. 

The article says that ocean-focused actions worldwide could help meet up to a quarter of the carbon emissions reductions needed by 2050 to stay below a 2 degree Celsius increase in global temperatures, a generally accepted (although still extremely consequential for conditions on the planet) target for carbon reductions.

The authors argue that developing ocean-based renewable energy, changing to shipping practices, protecting marine ecosystems, shifting the way we use the ocean for food, and pushing to develop seabed carbon storage (a new and unproven technology) could reap substantial benefits.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Rep. Suzanne Bonamici’s name.