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Climate change is impacting marine life more than we realized

The ocean is a vibrant ecosystem teeming with life. Sadly, it’s sending out distress signals. A recent study suggests that climate change is wreaking far more havoc on marine life than we ever imagined.

Scientists are sounding the alarm that fish and invertebrates (like snails and sea urchins) are caught in the crosshairs, and the effects are profound.

Climate change: Hidden dangers for marine life

“To gain a better understanding of the overall worldwide impact of , marine biologists calculate its effects on all fish or all invertebrate species lumped together,” explained lead author Katharina Alter of the Royal Netherlands Institute for Sea Research ().

This approach to studying the impact of climate change on marine life aims to capture the overall impact across these broad categories. However, this method has a significant limitation.

Let’s say climate change affects two different groups of marine animals in opposite ways. For example, warmer and more acidic waters might benefit one group by providing more food sources, while harming another by weakening their shells.

In such a scenario, the averaging approach could mask the true impact. The average result might show minimal change for the entire category, even though individual groups within it are experiencing significant positive or negative effects.

This is precisely what the new study by Dr. Alter and her team aims to address. Their method goes beyond simple averaging and instead focuses on how much individual species deviate from their normal biological state due to climate change. The result? A clearer picture of the damage.

Impact of climate change on marine life

With the old method, scientists knew climate change impacts three key areas for creatures: lowering survival chances, boosting metabolism, and harming the skeletons of invertebrates.

But this new analysis reveals the impact is broader:


Their basic bodily functions are disturbed. Changes in seawater could disrupt processes like temperature regulation, respiration (taking in oxygen), and waste removal. This is similar to how a human might struggle in extreme heat or at high altitudes.


It may become harder to create the next generation. This is serious for species already struggling. Warmer waters and ocean acidification can disrupt reproductive cycles, decrease egg or larval survival, and even make it harder for adults to find mates.


How they find food, avoid predators – it all could change. Fish or invertebrates might need to change where they live, what they eat, and how they interact with other species. This can make them more vulnerable to predators or unable to find enough food for survival


How they grow and mature is altered. Some larvae (the baby stage of many ocean creatures) might not develop correctly in this new environment. Changes in ocean chemistry or temperature could lead to deformities, slower growth rates, or even make larvae more vulnerable to being eaten.

Why change in even one species matters

“Both effects matter and even have cascading effects,” noted Dr. Alter. Even seemingly small changes in one species can have far-reaching consequences.

For example, imagine climate change alters the feeding patterns of two grazers on the seafloor: sea snails and sea urchins. If sea snails start consuming more algae due to factors like warmer water temperatures, it disrupts the natural balance.

This means there’s more algae available overall because the urchins, which typically feed heavily on algae, are now consuming less. While this shift might seem isolated, it can have a ripple effect throughout the ecosystem.

With increased algae comes a decline in kelp forests. Kelp forests are complex underwater ecosystems that provide food and shelter for many species. A decline in kelp could lead to a decrease in fish populations that rely on them for food and habitat.

This domino effect highlights how even seemingly minor changes in individual species can have cascading consequences that impact the entire marine environment. Dr. Alter’s study emphasizes the importance of understanding these interconnected relationships to truly comprehend the impact of climate change on our .

Predictions of marine life and climate change

The researchers examined how different levels of atmospheric carbon dioxide would influence the future health of our oceans. This is crucial because excess carbon dioxide from human activities (like burning fossil fuels) is the primary driver of both ocean warming and acidification.

“Our new approach suggests that if ocean warming and acidification continue on the current trajectory, up to 100% of the biological processes in fish and invertebrate species will be affected, while previous research methods found changes in only about 20 and 25% of all processes, respectively,” noted Dr. Alter.

Importantly, the study also provides a crucial glimmer of hope. In a scenario where carbon dioxide emissions are significantly reduced, the percentage of affected biological processes drops dramatically. This underscores the power of human action; by mitigating climate change, we have the potential to protect vast swaths of .

Saving marine life from climate change

To save marine life from climate change, we must act on multiple fronts:

Cut down greenhouse gas emissions by transitioning to renewable energy sources, like wind, solar, and hydro power. Reducing your personal carbon footprint through lifestyle changes, such as using public transportation, conserving electricity, and eating a plant-based diet, can also contribute significantly.

Protect marine life from climate change

Establish and enforce marine protected areas (MPAs) to safeguard critical habitats, allowing ecosystems to recover and thrive. Restoration projects, such as coral reef restoration and mangrove planting, can also help buffer marine communities against climate change effects.

Promote sustainable fishing

Implement and support sustainable fishing practices to prevent overfishing, which weakens marine populations making them more susceptible to the stresses of climate change.

Reduce pollution

Combat ocean pollution by minimizing plastic use, properly disposing of hazardous materials, and supporting policies and initiatives aimed at keeping our clean.

Support marine science and conservation

Fund and support scientific research focused on understanding and mitigating the impacts of climate change on marine life. Public support for conservation organizations working to protect the ocean can also make a big difference.

Raise awareness

Educate others about the impacts of climate change on marine life and what they can do to help. Awareness leads to action.

Advocate for climate action

Support policies and initiatives that aim to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and combat climate change on a global scale.

Collective action and changes in policy and personal behavior can significantly contribute to protecting marine life from the adverse effects of climate change.