Fellows in the News

When the sun sets on the human race, and the cause of death isn’t an asteroid scorching the Earth, whoever or whatever comes after our kind might uncover the documents that defined us—the Magna Carta, any number of national constitutions and international treaties, classic works of fiction. And more recently, that canon has come to include a series of special reports from the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC, warning of the unfolding catastrophe we’ve created for ourselves. The latest, on oceans and the cryosphere (the icy bits of the planet), drops today, and depending on whom you ask, it’s either startling, depressing, or dire, or more likely a combination of all three.

The main takeaway is this: Climate change is ocean change. The seas continue to take on the atmosphere’s heat, as marine heatwaves cripple ecosystems and less snow and ice threaten water supplies. The ocean has warmed unabated since 1970, absorbing more than 90 percent of the excess heat in the climate system. “The consequences for nature and humanity are sweeping and severe,” said Ko Barrett, IPCC vice chair, in a press conference announcing the findings.

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These shifts threaten fish stocks, a major source of food for our species. “I don't think people have a sense of how intimately their lives are connected to the oceans and the cryosphere,” says University of Colorado at Boulder marine scientist Cassandra Brooks, who wasn’t involved in the report. “They don't get that literally every other breath you take comes from the ocean from phytoplankton, that the climate would be much warmer if we didn't have the ocean doing all these services for us.”

Even if we were to cut off greenhouse gas emissions tomorrow—which we won’t, because capitalism—the oceans would continue to warm. With no mitigation or even under a low-emissions scenario, heat will pour into the oceans at an escalating and devastating rate.

“Despite this report being incredibly depressing, to be honest, at the same time I think we can see it as this real call to action,” says Brooks.

 

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