Dr Camille Parmesan: Oceans and climate change

10 September 2012 | Ingrid Sinclair

Dr Camille Parmesan. All photos by Ingrid Sinclair Dr Camille Parmesan. All photos by Ingrid Sinclair

As the second-most highly cited author in the field of climate change in 2010, Dr Camille Parmesan’s presence at the 8th International Aquarium Congress is apt. It is impossible to ignore the effect that climate change has had on oceans, and – as Dr Parmesan pointed out – climate change data relating to oceanic systems specifically pales in comparison to research done on terrestrial systems.

While some thinking has suggested that oceans could inherently be buffered against climate change, research has proved that oceans are exhibiting very similar changes to terrestrial systems. In fact, said Dr Parmesan, “the velocity of climate change is much stronger in ocean systems.”

For example, scientists have measured the range of movement by certain species; in the water this “range shift” – towards cooler waters – is about 72km per decade. For terrestrial species it’s between 6 and 20km per decade.

The strongest range shifts have been observed in phytoplankton, zooplankton and bony fish.

Every major animal group has been affected, said Dr Parmesan, on every continent and in every major ocean. The overwhelming message this morning was that climate change is happening and that denial is out of the question. Half of the species on earth have changed where they live, and two-thirds have changed “when” they live – seasonal behavior such as mating and migration has been altered.

Looking at temperature projections, Dr Parmesan’s opinion is unambiguous: “The data tells us that nothing has really been done [to slow down climate change].”

In last 20 years, scientific resources have shifted out of basic research into applied conservation, policy making, and public education/citizen science.

What are the proposed solutions to the effects of climate change?

Dr Parmesan drew attention to the ability of native plant systems to absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. Healthy native systems store more carbon dioxide than degraded systems, and “native oceanic systems hold more carbon in storage than do the iconic tropical forests.” There is therefore good reason to keep the seas clean.

Dr Parmesan said that untraditional restoration of plant communities could help – but these would have to be plant communities that could cope with new climate conditions or climate conditions of the future (better than, say, original vegetation could). The goal is to create new plant communities and ecosystems that are designed to thrive under these new, “novel” climates. Perhaps these new plant communities could be designed to absorb optomised levels of carbon dioxide.

Assisted colonisation of threatened species is an option, if certain guidelines are adhered to: there should be a low probability of harm to the recipient system, so no predators or parasites, no strong or aggressive competitors, and preferably a resource specialist that will have minimum impact on the host environment.

The days of traditional conservation are certainly not over, emphasised Dr Parmesan. She cited a study that revealed that the resilience of coral reefs are affected by overfishing, therefore recovery from coral bleaching is more likely if the ecosystem is as undisturbed as possible.

Marine protected areas play a more important role than ever in mitigating the measured effects of climate change.

What can aquariums do to help?

Dr Parmesan with 8th IAC Steering Committee Chairperson and Two Oceans Aquarium Managing Director Dr Patrick Garratt at the 8th IAC welcome event. <a href='http://iac2012.co.za/blog/entry/faces_of_the_8th_iac_welcome_function/'>Click here for more pics of the event.</a> Dr Parmesan with 8th IAC Steering Committee Chairperson and Two Oceans Aquarium Managing Director Dr Patrick Garratt at the 8th IAC welcome event. Click here for more pics of the event.

Aquariums’ impact on fighting climate change is three-fold.

Firstly, most aquariums are well equipped to culture for conservation – for assisted colonisation, healthy cultures of a known genotype are needed. In the worst-case scenario, marine “seed banks” could prove very advantageous after the climate has stabilised (and many species have gone extinct). 

Secondly, science. Aquarium research provides a better understanding of habitat creation and culturing successes or failures. Aquariums are also in a great position to coordinate citizen science in the form of censuses and labour.

Thirdly, aquariums are powerful communication and outreach vehicles. Aquariums can get the important messages to the public and motivate policy makers to take action to reduce global greenhouse gas emissions.

In line with Dr Elin Kelsey’s keynote presentation, Dr Parmesan provided hope: aquariums are part of the solution.

Join the conversation

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  • Author: Ingrid Sinclair
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