Change of Heart: how rampant carbon dioxide impacts the ocean

A wonderful part of working for the Aquarium is experiencing the life of Monterey Bay. Every time I leave my desk to watch birds, otters, dolphins and whales from our back deck, I’m freshly inspired to conserve the ocean.

At this moment in history, I’m inspired to protect the ocean from the biggest threat it has ever faced. That threat is rampant carbon dioxide.

Our planet has natural processes that add and remove “regular” carbon dioxide from its systems. This “regular” carbon dioxide is part of the normal life processes of plants and animals.

But humans have been bringing carbon that was previously locked away back into the system. This “rampant” carbon dioxide comes from burning fossil fuels like coal, oil and natural gas for energy—too much and too quickly for Earth’s natural processes to respond. Rampant carbon dioxide has gotten out of control, and the planet’s carbon balance has been thrown off.

Heat-trapping Blanket

Rampant carbon dioxide in the atmosphere builds up and adds to the heat-trapping blanket that surrounds Earth. The thicker the blanket becomes, the more heat the atmosphere traps. Much of this trapped heat transfers from the atmosphere into the ocean, since the ocean and atmosphere touch over 70 percent of our planet’s surface.

Warming ocean water is a problem. Animals and plants thrive within specific temperature ranges and may not be able to cope with water that is too warm. As waters warm, mobile animals seek cooler waters by either moving deeper or moving toward the poles. Animals and plants that can’t move may not survive.

Warmer water also takes up more space. Scientists call this thermal expansion, and it’s one of the factors contributing to sea level rise. As water levels rise, coastal habitats are squeezed up against human development. These habitats—coral reefs, mangroves, wetlands and more—support everything from important fisheries to migrating bird populations. They also provide buffer from storm surge and ocean waves.

The rampant carbon dioxide building up in the ocean itself causes changes in chemistry, or ocean acidification. We sometimes refer to ocean acidification as the “osteoporosis of the sea” because increasing acidity makes it harder for many animals (and some plants) to build and maintain the protective shells they need to survive. These include the plankton that produce much of the oxygen we breathe, and that form the base of ocean food webs on which marine life—and many people—depend.

The Heart of the Planet

Rampant carbon dioxide, warming ocean water, sea level rise and ocean acidification are major changes that indicate the ocean is in trouble. And the ocean is, in fact, the heart of the climate system. Just as our heart circulates blood and regulates our body’s temperature, the ocean controls the circulation of heat and moisture around the planet. We must take care of the heart to take care of the whole.

Every year, the Monterey Bay Aquarium touches about two million visitors who join a growing community inspired to conserve the ocean—to take care of our planet’s heart. By acting together, speaking up to let our governments know that regulating rampant carbon dioxide is critical to the health of the ocean that sustains us all, we can make a difference.

This is what the 2015 United Nations Conference of Parties (COP21) is all about: the global community coming together to reach an understanding of how to support human prosperity and maintain environmental integrity. By redefining “business as usual” and changing the way we power our lives, we will protect the ocean, marine animals and plants, and ultimately, ourselves.

Learn how you can ask world leaders to act on climate now.