Skip to main content
 
Magazine Logo
climate change graphic

The graphic shows the projected warming per year (indicated by the color-coded bar on the right) of the world’s marine protected areas (indicated by the black dots). (Courtesy of John Bruno)

Climate change threatens marine protected areas

Research from UNC-Chapel Hill and collaborators found that most marine life in marine protected areas will not be able to tolerate warming ocean temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

Marine protected areas have been established as a haven to protect threatened marine life, like polar bears, penguins and coral reefs, from the effects of fishing and other activities like mineral and oil extraction. The study found that with continued “business-as-usual” emissions, the protections currently in place won’t matter, because by 2100, warming and reduced oxygen concentration will make marine protected areas uninhabitable by most species currently residing in those areas.

The study, published in Nature Climate Change, concludes that such rapid and extreme warming would devastate the species and ecosystems currently located in marine protected areas. This could lead to extinctions of some of the world’s most unique animals, loss of biodiversity, and changes in ocean food-webs. It could also have considerable negative impacts on the productivity of fisheries and on tourism revenue.

The study also estimated the year in which marine protected areas in different ecoregions would cross critical thresholds beyond which most species wouldn’t be able to tolerate the change. For many areas in the tropics, this will happen as soon as the mid-21st century.

“With warming of this magnitude, we expect to lose many, if not most, animal species from marine protected areas by the turn of the century,” said John Bruno, lead author and biology professor. “We need to immediately adopt an emission reduction scenario in which emissions peak within the next two decades and then decrease very significantly, replacing fossil fuels with cleaner energy sources like solar and wind.”