A+ for Australian Marine Scientists

By Rebecca McLeod 04/12/2009

The Marine Climate Change Impacts and Adaptation Report Card Australia 2009 has just been released. Hiding behind the long-winded name is an excellent resource – a website-based state-of-knowledge of how climate change is likely to affect Australia’s marine life, with expert opinions from more than 70 marine scientists across the country.

Whilst the majority of the information presented on the website is available in various scientific papers, having it all combined on a common site, and in plain English is a real leap forward in making marine issues accessible to the public. Through many many many many (you get the drift) hours of careful research, scientists from a large range of disciplines have come to conclude that climate change has, is and will continue to affect marine life.

And these implications seem to reach every kind of marine environment there is – from the open ocean to coastal reefs to estuaries. Particularly concerning are stresses upon species that provide a home for marine animals – for example, kelp forests, among which a multitude of fish and invertebrate species live, are very sensitive to changes in seawater temperature, and so are predicted to disappear from southern Australia if seawater temperatures continue to rise.

Kelp forests are predicted to disappear from Tasmania should the sea temperature continue to rise
Kelp forests are predicted to disappear from Tasmania should the sea temperature continue to rise

Meanwhile in more tropical regions, such as the Great Barrier Reef, corals are suffering from multiple climate change related issues. Increased water temperature can stress corals, causing death of the individual anemone-like creatures that come together to form a coral colony. This occurrence is known as “bleaching”, and is becoming increasingly common and severe. A more recently-discovered phenomenon – ocean acidification – has the potential to devastate corals and other organisms that have skeletons made of calcium carbonate. It isn’t pleasant to think about, but if the corals disappear, so too will all of those who live on and amongst them.

Of course, with environmental science, and science in general, it is difficult to “prove” things beyond all doubt. To reflect such uncertainty, the observations, predictions and forecasts are rated with high, medium or low confidence, and I think that this is a really worthwhile addition to the site. Also included are sections on things that aren’t yet known, and require further research.

This site does make for some scary reading, and I wonder whether a section along the lines of ’what you can do’, or “alternative pathways” section might lessen the blow. But then, it could be argued that individual efforts from the public would not be enough to stop the processes that are already in motion – what is needed are global-scale changes introduced by world leaders.

In the meantime, marine scientists will keep working to document our rapidly changing marine environments…