When water heats up, it takes up more space. That means as oceans warm, sea levels rise. The study says this effect alone could make sea levels could rise by about 30cm (12 inches) by the end of the century.
“That doesn’t sound like much, but there are many large cities around the world, much built on reclaimed land, that are not more than 30cm above sea level,” says Stephen Simpson, associate professor in marine biology and global change at the University of Exeter, in the UK. “Millions and millions of people would be displaced.”
But on top of that, warming oceans are causing polar ice sheets to melt faster, which will make sea levels rise even more.
Extreme weather gets more extreme
For coastal areas already struggling with rising seas, those storms will bring even more flooding.
Ocean life under threat
Almost three-quarters of the world’s coral reefs were affected by those heat waves and experts say warmer oceans mean these sorts of die offs will become much more common.
Another problem for sea life is that increased flooding causes more nutrients to be washed into the sea. This leads to plankton blooms and ultimately causes some parts of the sea to be starved of oxygen, making it hard for fish to live there.
Fish species respond to warmer oceans by migrating to cooler areas, says Simpson. But the waters in some parts of the world are getting too warm for any fish — and that could lead to food shortages in those areas.
“There is a severe food security risk in the tropics,” says Simpson. “No species are already activated to temperatures warmer than the tropics, so you could see a real crash in food fish populations. And these are places where coastal nations often have no other protein in the diet other than the fish from coral reefs.”
Melting sea ice
“The Inuit living in Canada, for example, is a culture based on sea ice,” says Arnaud Czaja, a reader in physical oceanography at Imperial College London. “They get their food by hunting seals and polar bears from sea ice, or fishing from sea ice. When the sea ice is disappearing that’s not possible, so the whole culture is being lost.”
Is there any good news?
While scientists say the new paper shows an alarming rate of increase in ocean temperatures, Simpson sees one chink of light.
“The only positive is we now have a better understanding of the relationship between human emissions and ocean warming,” he says. “That gives stronger evidence as to why controlling emissions is so important for our generation — and the next.”