The world's foremost climate scientists have found oceans are getting intensely warmer, sea levels are rising and the Earth's waters are losing oxygen and becoming more acidic.
Now, marine life is migrating toward the poles in search of cooler waters and suitable areas to survive — a migration set to disrupt the Earth's ecosystems as we know them.
That's what William Cheung, one of the Canadian authors of the latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, told National Observer in a phone interview from Monaco, where scientists gathered Wednesday to release staggering findings about the impacts of human activity on the state of the oceans and the cryosphere, the ecological realm of sea ice, snow and glaciers.
"Under high-emissions scenarios, we're looking at unprecedented changes in ocean conditions," said Cheung, the Canada Research Chair in Ocean Sustainability and Global Change at the University of British Columbia.
"This will implicate people who rely on our fisheries systems, especially Indigenous people who rely on marine species for food, livelihood and culture," he said.
"Overall, the picture does not look good."
By Wednesday afternoon, none of the four major party leaders had publicly commented on the report and its urgent recommendations. Only federal Environment Minister Catherine McKenna responded, with a brief statement acknowledging the validity of the report's findings on Twitter before celebrating National Tree Day: “Another scientific assessment of the devastating impacts of climate change — specifically on oceans and ice. Another reminder about just how important it is that we take ambitious climate action.”
Another scientific assessment of the devastating impacts of climate change - specifically on oceans and ice. Another reminder about just how important it is that we take ambitious climate action. https://t.co/EoNPaYfAUv— Catherine McKenna (@cathmckenna) September 25, 2019
Marine life migrating by 52 kilometres per decade
The sweeping report finds a failure to dramatically reshape “all aspects of society” to limit global warming to less than 2 C above pre-industrial levels will mean devastation for coastal cities, Arctic communities, small island states, anyone who relies on glaciers for water and virtually all marine life.
The report warns that the world's oceans have already absorbed “more than 90 per cent of the excess heat in the climate system," and that sea levels are rising more than twice as fast and accelerating over time. If global heating increases by two degrees or more, sea levels could rise by between 61 and 110 cm by 2100.
Many glaciers are "projected to disappear regardless of future emissions,” the scientists wrote. And 20 to 90 per cent of the world’s current coastal wetlands are projected to disappear by 2100.
Worryingly for Cheung, all of this is threatening underwater habitats and forcing marine animals to move for survival by as much as 52 kilometres per decade.
Cheung explains that, off Canada's east coast, Atlantic cod are swimming toward the Arctic. In the west, the Pacific Ocean’s high temperatures are threatening Atlantic salmon. Coral reefs and kelp forests are already disappearing.
The migration will affect how species interact around the world. In the Arctic, for example, the loss of sea ice along the very large coastline and introduction of new marine organisms will affect the food available for predators, Cheung said.
Cheung urges Canada and countries around the world to implement a low-emissions pathway and move away from overfishing toward more sustainable water-based activities to mitigate the serious biodiversity loss in the Earth's waters.
"Although the oceans' future is under serious threat, we know how to respond," he said. "We need protective pathways to save marine life."