Study: Marine Protected Areas Won’t Matter

climate change prediction graph

New research from the University of North Carolina concludes that most marine life in marine protected areas will not be able to tolerate warming ocean temperatures caused by greenhouse gas emissions.

There are 8,236 marine protected areas around the world covering about four percent of the surface of the ocean. They 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 such as oil and gas 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 predicts that under the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Representative Concentration Pathway 8.5 emissions scenario, better known as the “business as usual scenario,” marine protected areas will warm by 2.8 degrees Celsius (or 5 degrees Fahrenheit) by 2100. Mean sea-surface temperatures within marine protected areas are projected to increase 0.034 degrees Celsius (or 0.061 degrees Fahrenheit) per year. Marine protected areas in the Arctic and Antarctic are projected to warm especially quickly, threatening numerous marine mammals like polar bears and penguins. The marine protected areas at the greatest risk include those in the Arctic and Antarctic, in the northwest Atlantic, and the newly designated no-take reserves off the northern Galápagos islands Darwin and Wolf.

The study 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. Many of these marine species exist as small populations with low genetic diversity that are vulnerable to environmental change and unlikely to adapt to ocean warming.

“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. “To avoid the worst outcomes, 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.”

The research was conducted in collaboration with researchers at Florida Institute of Technology, Polar Bears International, University of Southampton, Memorial University of Newfoundland, Marine Conservation Institute, NOAA Atlantic Oceanographic and Meteorological Laboratory, University of Miami and the National Oceanography Centre.