Capturing the Power of the Ocean to Help Solve the Climate Crisis

Suzanne Bonamici
Sep 25, 2019 · 6 min read

Every person on this planet benefits from a healthy ocean and a stable cryosphere. The ocean supplies much of the oxygen that we breathe, regulates our climate, feeds us, drives commerce, and transports us. The cryosphere — which includes the frozen components of the Earth like glaciers, ice sheets, snow, permafrost, and sea ice — supplies freshwater, stores carbon, and supports biodiversity. Together, the ocean and cryosphere regulate the global exchange of water, energy, and carbon.

Today the United Nations Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate. It is the most comprehensive scientific assessment to date of the effects of climate change on our ocean and coasts, and also on our polar and mountain ecosystems. The findings are dire. The climate crisis is causing devastating effects, from the remote deep ocean floor to the most pristine Arctic and mountain regions.

Warnings in the IPCC Report

Specifically, the IPCC report found that:

  • The ocean is warming rapidly as a direct result of anthropogenic greenhouse gas emissions. The rate of ocean warming has more than doubled since 1993. It has absorbed more than 90 percent of excess heat in the climate system since 1970. And marine heatwaves are very likely to become longer-lasting, more intense, and more extensive.
  • The ocean is becoming more acidic and less habitable to the species that live within it. The ocean has very likely absorbed up to 30 percent of total anthropogenic carbon since the 1980s, at the expense of the well-being of species that reside in the ocean.
  • The ocean is losing oxygen at an unprecedented rate. Oxygen loss results in dead-zones, where marine life cannot survive.
  • Environmental stressors are pushing many fisheries to the brink of collapse. Warming temperatures, acidic waters, and oxygen depletion are compromising the abundance, productivity, and food-web interactions of species. We will see the distribution and runs of fisheries shift and decline, jeopardizing the livelihoods and food security of coastal communities.
  • Sea levels are rising; without significant adaptation, extreme coastal flooding will become common by the end of the century. The IPCC projected that 20 to 90 percent of coastal wetlands will be lost by 2100 because of sea level rise and habitat degradation.
  • Glacial and snow melt reductions are jeopardizing water supply. Declining snowpack is reducing agriculture productivity, harming the outdoor recreation industry, and resulting in unprecedented wildfires in many mountain regions and the Arctic.
  • The landscape of the Arctic is changing rapidly. Arctic sea ice is melting during all months of the year and sea ice-free summers are increasingly likely. Arctic surface air temperatures have increased by more than double the global average in the last two decades, resulting in the loss of sea ice and snow cover. And widespread thaw of permafrost is projected to occur this century, releasing 10s to 100s of billions of tons of carbon dioxide and methane into the atmosphere.

The science is clear. We need to take immediate action to reduce greenhouse gas emissions to protect the health of our ocean and the stability of the cryosphere.

At a time when the Trump Administration perpetually dismisses and denies climate science, it is our responsibility to lift up the voices of the scientific community. Today I am leading my colleagues in introducing a resolution that accepts the findings of the Special Report and commits to implementing ocean-centric solutions to the climate crisis along with policies to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Adapting to Current Effects of Climate Change

We must enact bold, meaningful policies to reduce emissions and transition to a 100 percent clean energy economy. But some of the effects of the climate crisis on our ocean are already locked in. To respond, we also need to invest in adaptation and scientific monitoring efforts.

As the only member of the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis from the Pacific Northwest and Co-Chair of both the House Oceans Caucus and Congressional Estuary Caucus, I know that we are already seeing many of these changes in our region.

  • In 2014, “the Blob” wreaked havoc on our coastal communities as harmful algal blooms devastated the shellfish industry and precious salmon populations declined. Now, another marine heat wave is on track to be as strong.
  • Hypoxia has become a seasonal issue, resulting in marine dead zones where our prized Dungeness crab cannot survive. In 2014, and again last year, I led my colleagues in passing legislation to respond to harmful algal blooms. I am now working on an update to that law to recognize the distinct effects of hypoxia on our ecosystems.
  • The basic chemistry of our oceans is changing at an unprecedented rate. Without intervention, ocean acidification is projected to become more intense and increasingly common on the Pacific Coast. Ocean and coastal acidification make it difficult for marine organisms to build their shells, and is causing some finfish, including endangered salmon, to lose the sense of smell they need to survive and reproduce. Earlier this year, the House passed my comprehensive COAST Research Act, and three other bills that will help strengthen scientific research and monitoring of ocean and coastal acidification.

Opportunities for Ocean Driven Mitigation

In addition to adaptation efforts, we must also include the ocean as a central part of the solution to mitigate the climate crisis.

1. The ocean can play a part in the transition to 100 percent clean energy. Earlier this month, the House passed two bills to permanently safeguard our ocean and coasts from offshore oil and gas drilling. We can instead focus on the untapped potential of marine driven renewable energy. Waves, tides, and currents carry kinetic energy that can be captured and converted into electricity to power homes, buildings, and cities. Researchers at Oregon State University and the Pacific Marine Energy Center are leading the nation’s research and development efforts in this area and are working to establish a wave energy test facility off the Oregon Coast. We should strengthen investments to support marine energy deployment.

2. We can reduce emissions by supporting the electrification of the maritime industry. Global shipping currently generates approximately three percent of total global greenhouse gas emissions. Without significant efforts to decarbonize, by 2050 ocean shipping vessels will account for about 17 percent of emissions worldwide.

3. We can restore our coastal wetlands and recognize their value as an effective climate mitigation strategy. Tidal salt marshes, seagrass meadows, and mangrove forests can sequester and store significant amounts of blue carbon from our atmosphere. I’m working on legislation to strengthen blue carbon research and support the conservation and restoration of coastal wetlands.

On World Oceans Day, I co-authored an op-ed with marine ecologist and former NOAA Administrator Dr. Jane Lubchenco, outlining the power of our ocean. The High Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy echoed many of these positive ocean solutions in their latest research paper released this week.

The health of our ocean reflects the health of our planet, and for too long our ocean has literally taken the heat for us. I’m committed to responding to the science and making these ocean-centric solutions a priority as we get our nation on a path to net-zero emissions no later than mid-century.

Suzanne Bonamici

Written by

Representing Oregon’s 1st District. Working to strengthen #PublicEducation, support #WorkingFamilies, & #DefendScience. Proud mom of two grown kids.

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