Impact of Oceanic Environmental Issues

Instructor: Amanda Robb

Amanda holds a Masters in Science from Tufts Medical School in Cellular and Molecular Physiology. She has taught high school Biology and Physics for 8 years.

This lesson will help you understand the impact of important oceanic environmental issues. We'll cover topics such as ocean acidification, increased sea surface temperatures, and rising sea levels.

What Are Oceanic Environmental Issues?

Not all of us live near the ocean. For those living in landlocked states like the midwestern United States, it might be hard to imagine the impact the ocean has on our daily lives. But the ocean is a huge source of food for people all over the world, no matter where you live. It also is a master regulator of our weather and climate patterns and even contributes about 70 percent of the oxygen to our atmosphere through photosynthetic phytoplankton. That's right, the ocean makes more of the oxygen we breathe than even tropical rainforests.

So you're probably feeling pretty convinced that oceans are important. But so what? Why are there issues?

Well, the oceans are plagued by oceanic environmental issues, just like their counterparts of tropical rainforests on land. Environmental issues are problems that come when humans pollute the oceans or use them inappropriately and cause damage to oceanic ecosystems.

Global Warming

One of the biggest environmental issues facing our oceans today is global warming. Global warming is a gradual increase in global temperature, which is caused by too many greenhouse gases in the atmosphere, such as nitrous oxides, methane, and carbon dioxide. Although these gases are produced naturally, humans are producing them at an alarming rate, skyrocketing the Earth's average temperature.

Global warming doesn't mean it's getting warmer everywhere, but it does mean that the oceans are getting warmer; this is creating devastating effects on weather and climate all over the globe. Today, we're going to look at three problems caused by global warming: ocean acidification, increased surface temperatures, and rising sea levels.

Ocean Acidification and Coral Reefs

Solutions can be basic, neutral, or acidic. Most living things, including bodies of water that house them, want to be neutral. Being acidic means there is an abundance of hydrogen ions in the solution, and these can cause problems for cells and their structures.

Ocean Acidification

Global warming is causing ocean acidification. When cars, factories, and other human activities burn fossil fuels, we release carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. Much of that carbon dioxide gets absorbed by the ocean. In water, carbon dioxide converts to carbonic acid, which is making the oceans more acidic. This is bad for many marine creatures that like it neutral, but it's especially bad for coral reefs.

Coral reefs are symbiotic organisms made of coral polyps and photosynthetic algae, called zooxanthellae. The corals provide some nutrients for the zooxanthellae as well as a space to live in the calcium carbonate matrix they create. The zooxanthellae in turn provide food for the corals.

In an acidic ocean, the structural integrity of the coral is compromised. Coral structures are made of calcium carbonate, an alkaline material. In the presence of acid, the calcium carbonate reacts and breaks down. Thus, the increased ocean acidification destroys the coral structures and slows down their growth.

Coral Bleaching

Another issue facing coral due to global warming is coral bleaching. Coral bleaching occurs when ocean temperatures get too high. The high temperature causes the coral to expel the zooxanthellae, leaving them with no food source. The corals become pale and over time become more vulnerable to disease and can die.

Ocean acidification causes coral bleaching.
coral bleaching

Increased Sea Surface Temperatures and Species Range

Increased ocean temperatures aren't just bad for coral reefs, though. Many species have a natural range based on the temperature of the water they live in. For example, tropical fish from the Caribbean Sea rarely make it up north to the East Coast of the United States. With changes in water temperatures, however, some species could be seeing a new range.

Although this might sound like a good thing for some warm water species, it upsets the balance, or homeostasis, of the ocean. And it gives invasive species that were once confined to the warm waters of the south an opening to break through to new territory.

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