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Are Oceans Turning Green Because of Climate Change?
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Blog...Are Oceans Turning Green Because of Climate Change?

Are Oceans Turning Green Because of Climate Change?

Ecology News
Global Warming
ocean wave
In this article, we’ll explore the reasons behind the changing colors of the oceans, discuss what this means for marine life, and determine how these shifts reflect larger environmental changes.
Ecology News
2024-04-18T00:00:00.000Z
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ocean wave

Did you know that the oceans are changing color? Over half of the world's seas have changed from a deep blue to various shades of green. Visible on satellite imagery, this transformation is a striking reminder of the impact climate change is having on marine ecosystems. The shift in color reflects significant ecological changes, driven by rising global temperatures and alterations in oceanic conditions.

This change in color is a crucial sign of the health of our oceans and its broader implications for the global environment. The change in color of the Earth’s oceans should serve as a warning to mankind, emphasizing the urgent need for environmental action.

👉 In this article, we’ll explore the reasons behind the changing colors of the oceans, discuss what this means for marine life, and determine how these shifts reflect larger environmental changes, underscoring the need for immediate action against climate change.

Why does ocean colour matter?

The colour of the ocean might seem trivial but it’s actually an indicator of what is happening beneath the surface. The various hues of green and blue that color the ocean’s surface are largely influenced by the presence of tiny, plant-like organisms known as phytoplankton. These microscopic organisms are crucial to the ocean’s food chain and play an important role in regulating atmospheric carbon dioxide through photosynthesis.

💡 Phytoplankton contain chlorophyll, the same green pigment found in plants that absorbs sunlight for photosynthesis. The amount and type of phytoplankton present in the water can influence the ocean's color - areas rich in phytoplankton appear greener due to high concentrations of chlorophyll.

In recent decades, satellite technology has significantly improved our monitoring capabilities of global oceanic changes. Instruments like the Moderate Resolution Imaging Spectroradiometer (MODIS) onboard NASA's Aqua satellite have played an important role in observing ocean color. Through the analysis of light wavelengths reflected by the ocean, MODIS provides scientists with critical data to map the subtle changes in ocean color that are not necessarily visible to the human eye. 

By examining MODIS data over the last twenty years, researchers have identified consistent long-term shifts in ocean color, predominantly in the tropical and subtropical waters between 40 degrees South and 40 degrees North. These regions typically do not experience significant seasonal color variations, which has allowed scientists to detect subtle long-term changes.

According to recent studies, these low-latitude oceans have progressively become greener. To determine if these changes could be attributed to climate change, researchers used a simulation model to forecast marine ecosystem responses to increased atmospheric greenhouse gases. The findings revealed that the observed changes matched with those predicted by the model, suggesting a strong link to climate change.

👉 Data suggests that 56% of the Earth's ocean surface has experienced color changes, underscoring the widespread impact of these environmental shifts.

The variations in color are a reflection of the biological and chemical processes occurring in the oceans. A shift towards greener waters could suggest a bloom in phytoplankton, which can occur in response to changes in water temperature, light availability, or nutrient levels. While these blooms can be beneficial, promoting a thriving marine food chain, they can also lead to harmful algal blooms that disrupt marine life and local fisheries.

Understanding the science of ocean color is therefore essential not only for marine biologists but also for climate scientists and ecologists who seek to understand the broader impacts of environmental changes on our planet.

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Factors causing the oceans to turn green

Scientists are still trying to understand the exact processes behind the transformation of the ocean color from blue to shades of green. It’s believed that it is likely influenced by a combination of environmental and human factors. In this section we’ll explore the main reasons behind this shift, shedding light on the interplay of climate change, pollution, and overfishing, and how each might contribute to the changing marine landscape.

Climate change

The main driver of ocean color change is thought to be global warming. As the planet heats up, sea surface temperatures rise, creating conditions that are favorable for phytoplankton blooms. Warmer waters can enhance the growth rates of certain types of phytoplankton, particularly those that thrive in higher temperatures, leading to greener seas. 

Additionally, global warming affects ocean currents, which can alter nutrient distribution patterns impacting phytoplankton growth.

Nutrient pollution

Runoff from agriculture, wastewater, and industrial discharges introduces excessive nutrients into marine environments, particularly nitrates and phosphates. These nutrients can fuel phytoplankton blooms, altering the ocean's color. In some cases, such nutrient-rich conditions lead to harmful algal blooms that not only change the color of the water but also create dead zones where oxygen levels are too low to support marine life.

Overfishing

Overfishing can indirectly affect ocean color by disrupting marine food chains. Declining numbers of certain fish species alter the natural balance of marine ecosystems, which can increase the populations of phytoplankton as there are fewer fish to eat them. This imbalance often results in larger and more frequent phytoplankton blooms, contributing to the greening of ocean waters.

Ocean stratification 

Increased surface temperatures from global warming lead to ocean stratification. This is when warmer, lighter water stays on top and colder, denser water remains below. This stratification prevents the vertical mixing of water layers, which reduces the upward flow of nutrients from deeper waters to the surface. Phytoplankton in the upper layers adapts to these nutrient-poor conditions differently, with species that contribute to greener ocean colors thriving.

👉 It’s important to understand the various factors that contribute to the greening of our oceans. Only by understanding the root causes can we implement strategies to mitigate its impacts on marine ecosystems and livelihoods. By tackling issues like greenhouse gas emissions, nutrient pollution, and unsustainable fishing practices, we can help stabilize oceanic conditions and preserve the health of our planet’s blue and green waters.

Effects of greening oceans

In addition to the visual changes in our oceans due to increased phytoplankton populations, the greening of our seas has several negative impacts. This section will dive into the consequences of these negative effects, examining how they disrupt marine ecosystems and affect broader environmental and human health.

Impact on marine biodiversity

Phytoplankton are the base of the ocean’s food chain, serving as the primary food source for a whole host of marine species, from tiny zooplankton to large whales. An increase in phytoplankton can initially boost the populations of species that feed on them. However, excessive phytoplankton growth can lead to harmful algal blooms that produce toxins harmful to fish, shellfish, mammals, birds, and even humans. These blooms can result in massive die-offs of marine life, significantly reducing biodiversity and altering ecosystems.

Oxygen depletion

Large phytoplankton blooms - especially those fuelled by nutrient pollution - often lead to hypoxic conditions, known as dead zones, where oxygen levels drop too low to support most marine life. These zones can suffocate marine creatures, leading to ecological dead zones where very few organisms can survive. The expansion and increased frequency of these dead zones are a grave concern for conservationists and fisheries, as they not only threaten fragile ecosystems but also impact the livelihoods of millions of people who depend on fishing and aquaculture.

Climate feedback loops

Phytoplankton not only feed marine life but also play a crucial role in the carbon cycle. Through photosynthesis, they absorb carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, helping to regulate global climate through carbon sequestration. However, changes in phytoplankton populations can alter this cycle. For example, different species of phytoplankton have varying efficiencies in carbon uptake and storage. Shifts in dominant species could change the amount of carbon dioxide the oceans can absorb, potentially impacting global climate systems.

Economic implications

The greening of the oceans also has a number of economic implications. It can impact industries such as fishing, tourism, and aquaculture. Fluctuations in phytoplankton populations can affect fish stocks, altering the availability of commercial species and affecting fisheries' sustainability. In tourism, the presence of harmful algal blooms can deter recreational activities in affected areas, leading to economic losses for businesses. For aquaculture, changes in water quality and oxygen levels can lead to increased costs as more treatment is needed to maintain healthy farming conditions. 

Human health concerns

The rise of harmful algal blooms poses a significant risk to human health. Consumption of contaminated seafood can lead to shellfish poisoning and other food-borne illnesses. Additionally, harmful algal blooms can release toxins into the air, causing respiratory issues for coastal residents and visitors. The presence of toxins in water bodies can also contaminate drinking water sources, posing health risks to communities reliant on these water supplies.

Societal impacts

Beyond the immediate environmental and health concerns, changes in ocean color due to raised phytoplankton levels can have wider societal implications. Coastal communities reliant on fishing and tourism may face economic hardship due to declines in fish stocks and decreased tourist activity. Additionally, disruptions to marine ecosystems can threaten cultural practices and traditions tied to the sea, impacting the livelihoods and well-being of indigenous and coastal communities.

seaweed in the ocean

What can we do to prevent the harmful effects of greening oceans?

Taking proactive steps to mitigate the harmful impacts of greening oceans is crucial for safeguarding marine ecosystems and global environmental health. Here are some actionable strategies that individuals, communities, and policymakers can adopt:

  • Reduce carbon emissions - Addressing the root cause of climate change by reducing greenhouse gas emissions is the most important action we can take. Unless global warming is brought under control the adverse impacts of changing climates will continue to wreak havoc on the Earth’s ecological processes. At an individual level, we can minimise our carbon footprint by adopting sustainable practices such as using renewable energy, reducing energy consumption, and opting for eco-friendly transportation options like walking, cycling, or using public transit.
  • Support conservation efforts - Investing in marine conservation initiatives can help protect vulnerable ecosystems and species affected by greening oceans. Supporting marine protected areas, sustainable fishing practices, and efforts to reduce pollution and habitat destruction can contribute to preserving biodiversity and ecosystem resilience.
  • Promote sustainable fisheries - Sustainable fisheries management is essential for maintaining a healthy marine food chain and supporting coastal communities. Implementing science-based quotas, protecting critical habitats, and combating illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing practices are vital for ensuring the long-term sustainability of marine resources.
  • Enhance ocean monitoring and research - Continued monitoring and research efforts are essential for understanding the drivers and impacts of ocean color changes. Investing in advanced technologies, such as satellite-based monitoring systems like the NASA PACE mission, can provide valuable data for assessing ecological trends, tracking environmental changes, and informing conservation strategies.
  • Raise awareness and education - Educating the public about the importance of ocean conservation and the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems is crucial. By raising awareness individuals can make informed choices, advocate for policy changes, and support initiatives aimed at preserving ocean health. I
  • Advocate for policy change - Engaging in advocacy efforts and supporting policies that promote sustainable environmental practices and mitigate climate change is essential. Encouraging governments and international organisations to prioritise ocean conservation, implement climate mitigation measures, and strengthen environmental regulations can have a significant impact on addressing the challenges posed by greening oceans.

By collectively taking these actions, we can work towards mitigating the harmful effects of greening oceans, preserving marine biodiversity, and promoting a healthier and more sustainable future for our planet.

What about Greenly?

At Greenly we can help you to assess your company’s carbon footprint, and then give you the tools you need to cut down on emissions. Why not request a free demo with one of our experts - no obligation or commitment required. 

If reading this article has inspired you to consider your company’s own carbon footprint, Greenly can help. Learn more about Greenly’s carbon management platform here.

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