The state of the oceans

A landmark report on the state of the world's oceans and icy regions...
01 October 2019

Interview with 

Andrew Meijers, British Antarctic Survey


Ocean and an island


Recently, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change published a special report on changes happening to the oceans and ice sheets. They documented widespread ice loss; highlighted rates of ocean warming, which have doubled since 1993; cited rising sea levels as major on-going and future risks, as well as climate-related hazards for coastal communities; and drew attention to shifts in the geographical ranges and seasonal activities of different animal groups. Chris Smith went to see ocean scientist Andrew Meijers, from the British Antarctic Survey, to ask him why the world’s oceans went up the news agenda this week…

Andrew - It's really the release of two important reports on how the oceans relate to climate. The first report is a special report by the IPCC, it’s the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, really looking at the results of the science over the last few years on how the oceans are warming, how the ice caps are increasingly melting and sea level rise is going up. The second report is looking at how we may reduce our carbon footprint through use of the ocean. They’re basically saying that the ocean will warm considerably, the sea level will rise anything up to 80 centimetres.

Chris - And over what period are they anticipating that this would kick in?

Andrew - So the usual sort of time frame they talk about is centennial. They usually have a timeframe in about 30 years, 50 years, and up to a century.

Chris - The other report which is looking at ways that we may be able to use the oceans as a mitigation strategy, what do they set out as the possibilities?

Andrew - They set out sort of five different areas. One is the renewable energies that are basically ocean based. So things like tidal, or offshore wind. Then they talk about reducing the carbon footprint of things like shipping, increasing marine protected areas like seagrass and mangroves, which actually store a lot of carbon in the silt around their bases, increasing use of seafood which is actually less carbon intensive than things like red meat.

And finally they're talking about some of the more experimental ideas of sequestration, so sort of sucking carbon out of the atmosphere and basically injecting it into the ocean soils.

Chris - And do the IPCC go a step further and say well, if these changes we're anticipating do manifest, what will be the cost to them, as in the human cost, environmental cost? Do they make any projections about that?

Andrew - This report largely focuses on the understanding of the physics, and the impacts on the biology. The impacts that they do talk about will be extremely strong consequences that we're already seeing for coral reefs, they're very sensitive to increases in carbon, both in the water, so that ocean acidification, and also warming of the surface layer. So that will cause dramatic diebacks of areas like the Australian Great Barrier Reef. They suggest that this may put increasing stress on fisheries, so many of the global fisheries are already overexploited or at their maximum capacity. The extra stress that ocean warming will be putting on food chains and ecosystems is likely to have significant impacts, and so reduce our ability to take food from the ocean.

Chris - That sounds at odds though, with one of the mitigation strategies, which was better exploitation of the oceans as a low carbon food source. So if we've got a resource that's already overexploited and one which is going to come under increasing pressure. Sounds like a double whammy for the ocean.

Andrew - Yeah absolutely, they do caveat that when they say we should be moving towards, sort of lower carbon foods, things like seafood for example, by saying that they have to be sustainably fished. So that goes hand-in-hand with things like marine protected areas, where you basically set up areas for fish to reproduce where they won't be exploited. And that basically gives them a physical area where they can reproduce safely, which then gives a population an area well effectively, where they’re not going to be fished to extinction

Chris - And you're going to go home and get an early night tonight because you're up early tomorrow. Where is it you're off to?

Andrew - Right yeah,  I'm off to Birkenhead, near Liverpool, which is where the new UK polar research vessel, the Sir David Attenborough, also possibly known as the Boaty McBoatface, is going to be launched. There'll be royals there. So David Attenborough himself will be there, it will be a very exciting day for all of us.

Chris - Is the ship actually ready?

Andrew - So it's not quite ready, it's going to be named and officially “launched”, but there's still a reasonable amount of things to do, there's a bit of interior design, bit of wiring, but the ship is essentially there and ready. Sea trials will commence soon, where basically they'll drive it into the ice and see how much it can break to get its official ice class, which will be exciting. And then next season, or the next Antarctic season which is the 2021 season, it'll be down around Antarctica doing its logistics works for the British Antarctic Survey.

Chris - Who gets to break the champagne?

Andrew - I'm not sure if I'm allowed to tell you this but I believe it's William and Kate, and I think Kate gets to press the button.


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