Joint press release by the German Environment Agency and the Alfred Wegener Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven

Protect oceans and polar regions, secure coastal areas for the long term

UBA and AWI demand more climate action and protection of the oceans and the mitigation of risks for coastal regions

Nahaufnahme einer großen Welle, die kurz davor ist in die Brandung zu stürzenClick to enlarge
Oceans play an important role in the earth's climate system.
Source: Daniel Muller / Fotolia

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC presented its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate last Wednesday. The report indicates that climate change is already making a grave impact on the oceans and polar regions (cryosphere). The oceans are warming and becoming increasingly acidic, the number of marine heat waves is on the rise, and sea levels are rising at a quicker rate. President Maria Krautzberger of the German Environment Agency and Prof. Dr. Antje Boetius, Director of the Alfred Wegner Institute, Helmholtz Centre for Polar and Marine Research in Bremerhaven are making a joint appeal to enact effective climate protection in Germany and to develop solutions that prevent additional pollution of marine ecosystems and coastal areas.

Maria Krautzberger said: “To be better prepared for the effects of accelerated sea level rise and higher storm tide water levels, the Federal Government and the Länder must consider all the options to secure coastal zones. Nature-based solutions such as beach nourishment, offshore inundation surfaces or salt marshes and seagrass beds should be given preference over purely hard defences such as ever higher and wider dikes. The many types of ocean pollution – inputs of surplus nutrients such as fertiliser from agriculture and plastic waste, for example – must be reduced. If the oceans suffer less pollution and are well protected, they will be more resilient to the effects of climate change and can be used by humankind over the long term. It will help ecosystems and the ecosystems help in adaptation to climate change. The report is clear that there is no time to lose. It is time for climate action now. Waiting it out is not an option.”

Antje Boetius said: “The continued unchecked increase in carbon dioxide emissions worldwide is exacting a real toll on marine life. Ocean warming and acidification are shrinking and shifting habitats with many negative effects for humankind, too. The rapid loss of sea ice, the increasing damage of coral reefs, and more frequent heat waves are a threat to many species. The Special Report finds that these factors are exerting a negative effect on ocean productivity and affecting the world’s coastal regions and their populations in particular. We will also have to invest a lot more in comprehensive protection of our seas and coasts. But most of all, it means that climate protection must become a priority goal in science-driven policymaking, more focussed on short-term, effective measures which are accepted by the public than it is at present.”

The IPCC Special Report says that the rise in sea levels has accelerated significantly in recent decades, in particular because Earth’s ice sheets and glaciers are melting and warming ocean waters are expanding. Sea level will continue to rise until the end of the 21st century and beyond, possibly several metres by the end of 2300 if humankind is not successful in limiting temperature rise to under 2 degrees Celsius. The risk of flooding in coastal regions therefore also increases, also in central Europe.

Sea level will remain high should the international community fail to take appropriate mitigation action. Storm surge will be higher along coastal regions and existing flood protection measures in place may not be sufficient for the coasts and land behind the dikes. Climate change is already intensifying anthropogenic pollution of the oceans, triggering marine heat waves and a greater occurrence of oxygen deficiency zones, and it has a negative impact on marine ecosystems and food webs when animals and plants can no longer live in these environments and must migrate to other regions.

The polar regions have warmed more strongly than other parts of the world. The ice shields on Greenland and in Antarctica are shrinking, the sea ice in the Arctic is disappearing, and permafrost is thawing. These obvious changes not only impact ecosystems but also the people living in these regions when the habitats and occurrence of certain fish species change or infrastructures collapse due to unstable soil.

The Special Report predicts that frozen landscapes will experience widespread glacier retreat, increasing loss of polar ice sheets, smaller extent and duration of snow cover as well as thawing and degradation of permafrost soils over the next few decades. High mountain areas including the European Alps can expect serious problems in water supply as the glaciers retreat. 

The German Environment Agency and science are calling for the necessary climate action to prevent warming and acidification of the oceans and polar regions and the consequences thereof, including the increase in marine heat waves and the weakening of circulation in the Atlantic. Furthermore, inputs of nutrients and pollutants must be reduced drastically in order to strengthen the buffer capacities and resilience of ecosystems to the effects of climate change.

Further information:

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change IPCC presented its Special Report on the Ocean and Cryosphere in a Changing Climate on 25 September 2019 in Monaco. The Special Report compiles the scientific knowledge available about the effects of climate change on oceans, ice and snow cover regions, and the polar regions of Earth and the associated risks for nature and people. It provides options for action in dealing with the expected changes.

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