Climate Change


Climate Change and the Ocean

Image from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment

Image from the California Office of Environmental Health Hazard Assessment

The past 10 years rank among the warmest years in the instrumental record of global surface temperature (since 1850). Unfortunately, this trend of climate change is on the increase in California and around the world.

The ocean is also changing as temperatures warm and greenhouse gas concentrations increase. Warmer temperatures are causing sea level rise and creating greater risk of coastal flooding. In addition, carbon dioxide is dissolving in the ocean, making it more acidic. More acidic ocean water impacts a wide variety of marine species, including species that people use for food.

These changes in the ocean will cause serious economic and environmental impacts if greenhouse gas emissions are left unchecked and no effort is made to adapt to the changing climate and ocean.

Photo Credit: Cassidy Teufel

Photo Credit: Cassidy Teufel

Photo Credit: Jan Smith

Photo Credit: Jan Smith

Take Action Against Climate Change

There are a number of ways to take action against climate change, look through the bullets below for some ideas:

Biking to work. Courtesy of the Baltimore Sun.

Reduce Emissions at Home:
  • Use Cool California to calculate your household energy bills to estimate your household’s annual greenhouse gas emissions and identify ways you can save energy, cut your emissions, and save money on your energy bills.
  • Conserve energy. Turn off lights, radio, or TV when you are not in the room.
  • Unplug the power cords that have a “brick” on them, like a cellphone charger or a computer power cord, when they are not in use. Those types of power cords draw energy even when they aren’t powering your appliances.
  • Change your ordinary light bulb to a compact fluorescent bulb or to a LED bulb. These bulbs last longer and use less energy. A compact fluorescent bulb will pay for itself in electricity savings after 2-3 months.
  • Consider transitioning to renewable energy at home. Most utility companies offer a renewable energy option, and org makes the switch to clean energy easier than ever.
  • Carpool, walk, ride a bike, or take public transit. Help keep roads cleaner from motor oil and our air cleaner! Even one day a week can make a difference.
  • Take the pledge. Return the favor by taking our pledge to protect the ocean.
  • Vote for those that protect the ocean and coast.
  • Encourage your government representatives to support climate change adaptation by writing letters to your representative and providing public comment at local meetings.
  • Mobilize your neighbors and organize your community to build resilience and get prepared for climate change impacts. Check out Resilience Communities for America for some ideas.
  • Join hundreds of millions of people around the world and turn off your lights for Earth Hour to raise awareness for climate action.
  • Check with your local City or County’s Climate Action Plan for ways you can contribute locally to reductions in greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.
Click here for more ways you can take action against climate change.

What is Climate Change?

Climate change is caused by the release of greenhouse gases (GHGs) into our atmosphere -primarily caused by the burning of fossil fuels. Fossil fuels, such as petroleum and coal, release carbon dioxide that traps heat in our atmosphere. Global temperatures have already increased 1.4°F since the Industrial Revolution, with much of this warming occurring in just the last 30 years alone. The average temperature in California is predicted to increase between 2-5°F by 2050 and 4-9°F by 2100.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), an organization established to provide the decision-makers and others interested in climate change with an objective source of information, states that the warming of the climate system is unequivocal, as is now evident from observations of increases in global average air and ocean temperatures, widespread melting of snow and ice and rising global average sea level. In their June 2014 report, the IPCC dedicated a chapter on climate change impacts to the ocean for the first time.

Climate Change is Harming the Ocean

The above graphic shows sea surface temperate changes from the average, over time. Courtesy of the 2014 NCA Report: http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/

The above graphic shows sea surface temperate changes from the average, over time. Courtesy of the 2014 NCA Report: http://nca2014.globalchange.gov/

The vitality of California’s society and economy are inextricably linked to the health of the ocean. A report on California’s Ocean Economy to the Natural Resources Agency found that the gross state product of activities related to the ocean came to $42.9 billion. Climate change impacts will hurt California’s ocean economy, including tourism, fisheries, and operation of ports. Warmer water temperatures and more acidic ocean water are causing many harmful changes to fish and wildlife populations, beaches and other coastal habitats as well as our quality of life. Below are specific examples of how climate change will affect California.

Ocean Acidification

Image Credit: West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Panel (www.westcoastoah.org)

Image Credit: West Coast Ocean Acidification and Hypoxia Panel (www.westcoastoah.org)

About a third of the carbon dioxide (CO2) emitted to the atmosphere through human activities is being absorbed by the ocean causing a change in the ocean’s chemistry. This is known as ocean acidification. Greater levels of dissolved CO2 lead to seawater that is more corrosive – or acidic – and impacts to marine life are already being observed along the West Coast. Increased acidity can limit the ability of organisms, such as oysters and particularly vulnerable early life stages, to form shells and skeletons that are made up of calcium carbonate. Adding to the complexity, ocean acidification is not an isolated threat, but part of a shifting environment in which carbonate chemistry and dissolved oxygen are changing alongside nutrients and temperature. While the extent of impacts is still uncertain, ocean acidification has the potential to disrupt marine food webs and important ecosystem services like wild-caught fisheries.

A shell placed in seawater with increased acidity slowly dissolves over 45 days. Photo courtesy of David Littschwager and the National Geographic Society.

Sea Level Rise

The global sea level already has risen by seven inches over the past century. Sea level rise comes from two effects of rising temperature: the melting of glaciers and ice sheets, and the thermal expansion of water. According to data collected by NASA, Antarctica has lost more than 24 cubic miles of ice each year since 2002, and its rate of ice loss is accelerating. If large ice sheets in the Antarctic melt, studies warn that there will be a significant rise in sea levels and decreases in ocean salinity.

The thermal expansion of water simply means that water molecules take up more space when they’re warmer, thermal expansion has accounted for about half of sea level rise since 1993. Global warming is projected to cause sea level to rise an average of 14 inches by 2050 and 47 inches or more by the end of the century, according to the 2011 Ocean Protection Council’s Interim Guidance on sea level rise. This will mean that significant areas of coastal California will be flooded, coastal cliffs and bluffs will erode faster, and beaches and other coastal habitats will disappear under the rising sea. For example, if no adaptive action is taken, much of San Francisco International Airport is predicted to be underwater by 2100.

The California Coastal Commission’s Sea-Level Rise Policy Guidance provides recommended steps that for California communities for addressing sea-level rise in Coastal Commission planning and regulatory actions.

More Frequent Severe Storms and Floods

  Roadway damaged in Santa Cruz County. Courtesy of USGS.


Roadway damaged in Santa Cruz County. Courtesy of USGS.

In addition to sea level rise and increased ocean temperatures, the duration and intensity of storms is predicted to increase. What was previously a flood that was likely to happen once every 100 years, will begin to happen once every 3-20 years, according to recent research done by MIT and Princeton University. Flooding can create significant damage to houses, transportation, and city infrastructure, with enormous financial losses. Abnormally high seas and storm surge between the 1997 and 1998 El Niño winter caused hundreds of millions of dollars in storm and flood damage in the San Francisco Bay area. Highways were flooded by six-foot waves as they splashed over waterfront bulkheads, and valuable coastal real estate was destroyed.

The California Climate Adaptation Strategy estimates that a 100 year coastal flood event with a 55 inch sea level rise will place 480,000 people and nearly $100 billion in property on California’s coast at risk, roughly two thirds of the property at risk is in San Francisco Bay. Safeguarding California: Reducing Climate Risk, an update to the 2009 California Climate Adaptation Strategy, provides an update and additional information on threats to California’s coast and communities from anticipated climate change impacts.

Saltwater Intrusion into Coastal Aquifers

In addition, some of California’s freshwater sources will be threatened as sea level rise pushes saltwater further into coastal rivers and aquifers. The San Francisco Bay-Delta is where California’s freshwater is pumped from the Sacramento and San Joaquin rivers to Southern California, the rest of the Bay Area, farmers in the Central Valley, and water users in the Delta itself. The Bay-Delta is vulnerable to sea level rise due to land subsidence (sinking) as well as the increase in sea levels. Most of the Bay-Delta is below today’s sea level and parts of the central and western delta are more than 15 feet below sea level. The Bay-Delta’s extreme vulnerability to sea level rise, levee failure, and coastal flooding makes it likely that saltwater will start to intrude in what is now freshwater aquifers, and the freshwater infrastructure that California uses now will no longer be able to transport freshwater to areas that need it.

A part of the Sacramento-San Joaquin Bay Delta showing land subsidence, islands, and levees. Image Courtesy of the US Bureau of Reclamation.

State Action on Climate Change

What is California doing?

California is reducing the pollutants that cause climate change, with the most aggressive goals of any North American government, including reduction of greenhouse gases by 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030. Governor Brown’s Executive Order issued on April 30, 2015 also sets forth actions for California to address the inevitable impacts from climate change.

To learn more about the state’s actions, including a detailed timeline of climate change policy, and for more information about climate change science, visit www.climatechange.ca.gov. To learn how you can take action on climate change, check out www.coolcalifornia.org.

The following provide more information on some of the key state activities for adaptation for ocean and coastal impacts from climate change:

Federal Action on Climate Change

What is the federal administration doing?

The federal government is pursuing a comprehensive and widespread suite of efforts to further understand and respond to the long-term risks posed to the United States by climate change.

These efforts are detailed in a report by the Center for Climate and Energy Solutions titled “Climate Change Adaptation: What Federal Agencies Are Doing,” February 2012 update.   The comprehensive list of efforts by all federal departments is exhaustive and lengthy, but some initiatives highlighted by the report include:

Department of Commerce

Department of Defense

Department of Homeland Security

  • Federal Emergency Management Administration is developing a Risk Map to provide data for, and increase awareness of, climate change rise to the US.

Department of Housing and Urban Development

  • Long-term Disaster Recovery Working Group is helping protect communities against climate change effects.

Department of the Interior

  • DOI is identifying resources vulnerable to climate change and implementing adaptive actions for 50 percent of the country.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) Climate.gov:

NOAA’s climate.gov is a source of timely and authoritative scientific data and information about climate. NOAA’s climate.gov seeks to promote public understanding of climate science and climate-related events, to make their data products and services easy to access and use, to provide climate-related support to the private sector and the Nation’s economy, and to serve people making climate-related decisions with tools and resources that help them answer specific questions.

U.S. Global Change Research Program (USGCRP)

The USGCRP is an interagency initiative, mandated by Congress in the Global Change Research Act of 1990 to “coordinate and integrate federal research on changes in the global environment and their implications for society”. By making substantial investment in climate change research, this program has advanced our understanding of short- and long-term changes in climate, the impacts of these changes on ecosystems and society, and scientific information to enable effective decision making to address the threats of climate change.

In May 2014, the U.S. global Change Research Program released the Third National Climate Assessment, the authoritative and comprehensive report on climate change and its impacts in the United States. The report can be viewed interactively on the web, or downloaded as a PDF in its entirety, or by section.

Administrator’s Alternative/Renewable Energy Goals

President Obama and Vice President Biden have developed a comprehensive plan to invest in alternative and renewable energy, end our addiction to foreign oil, address the global climate crisis and create millions of new jobs. The goals of the Obama/Biden comprehensive New Energy for America plan are to:

  • Help create five million new jobs by strategically investing $150 billion over the next 10 years to catalyze private efforts to build a clean energy future.
  • Within 10 years, save more oil than we currently import from the Middle East and Venezuela combined.
  • Put one million plug-in hybrid cars – cars that can get up to 150 miles per gallon — on the road by 2015.
  • Ensure 10 percent of our electricity comes from renewable sources by 2012, and 25 percent by 2025.
  • Implement an economy-wide cap-and-trade program to reduce greenhouse gas emissions 80 percent by 2050.
  • Reduce federal government emissions by 28% by the year 2020.

President Obama’s Climate Change Action Plan

In June 2014, President Obama announced a series of executive actions to reduce carbon pollution, prepare the U.S. for the impacts of climate change, and lead international efforts to address global climate change. At the forefront of President Obama’s Plan to cut carbon includes reducing carbon pollution from power plants, accelerating clean energy leadership, building a 21st century transportation sector, cutting waste in homes, businesses, and factories, reducing other greenhouse gas emissions, and federal leadership. More on President Obama’s Climate Action Plan can be found here.

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