How does rising atmospheric CO2 affect marine organisms?

Click to locate material archived on our website by topic


Rapid Climate Change (Biological Systems) -- Summary
Climate alarmists typically claim that CO2-induced global warming will be so fast and furious that many species of plants and animals will not be able to migrate poleward in latitude or upward in altitude fast enough to avoid extinction [see our Major Report The Specter of Species Extinction: Will Global Warming Decimate Earth's Biosphere?].  Is this claim correct?

Allen et al. (1999) analyzed sediment cores from a lake in southern Italy and from the Mediterranean Sea, developing a high-resolution climate and vegetation data set for this region over the last 102,000 years.  Rapid changes in vegetation were found to correlate with rapid changes in climate, such that complete shifts in natural ecosystems sometimes occurred over periods of less than 200 years.  These results demonstrate the biosphere can -- and does -- successfully respond to rapid changes in climate.  Indeed, as the fifteen authors explicitly state, "the biosphere was a full participant in these rapid fluctuations, contrary to widely held views that vegetation is unable to change with such rapidity."

Cannariato et al. (1999) investigated the character, magnitude and speed of benthic foraminifera responses to millennial-scale climate oscillations with data obtained from an ocean sediment core in the Northeast Pacific that extended some 60,000 years back in time.  A number of rapid climatic switches were noted throughout the course of the record, representing periods of what they call "extreme environmental variability."  Nevertheless, they report that no extinctions were observed and that the benthic ecosystems "appear to be both resilient and robust in response to rapid and often extreme environmental conditions," explicitly noting that faunal turnovers occurred within decades throughout the record "without extinction or speciation" and concluding that "broad segments of the biosphere are well adapted to rapid climate change."

In a study of contemporary biological systems, Schwing and Moore (2000) discuss a number of meteorological and oceanographic phenomena that have occurred off the west coast of the United States over the past few years, reporting that October 1999 marked a 13-month run of below-normal temperatures at Monterey, California, with a March-July mean that was 1.4C below the long-term average.  This remarkable run of unusually cool weather was linked to extreme oceanic conditions that prevailed over the same time period.  As they describe it, "in less than 2 years, sea-surface temperatures (SSTs) in this region went from being the warmest on record, during the height of El Nio in late 1997, to the lowest in decades," with a rapid ocean cooling of nearly 10C in some areas that was "unprecedented."  This cooling was "especially impressive," they say, "given that the annual range of SST in coastal waters off central California is about 3C, and its interannual variance is only 1C."

These dramatic deviations in climate produced a number of changes in the local ecology of the ocean, as zooplankton communities off Oregon and British Columbia shifted from predominantly warm-water to exclusively sub-arctic species.  Marine bird populations along the west coast of the continent also shifted from a prevalence of subtropical to subarctic species.  Schwing and Moore thus conclude that "the northeast Pacific Ocean can change swiftly and dramatically and that its marine populations can respond nearly as rapidly," as can many of their terrestrial counterparts.

In light of these observations, together with those of Idso et al. (2003), it is clear that the highly-hyped claims of imminent CO2-induced extinction propounded by Parmesan and Yohe (2003) and Root et al. (2003) lack a solid empirical basis and run counter to real-world facts.

References
Allen, J.R.M., Brandt, U., Brauer, A., Hubberten, H.-W., Huntley, B., Keller, J., Kraml, M., Mackensen, A., Mingram, J., Negendank, J.F.W., Nowaczyk, N.R., Oberhansli, H., Watts, W.A., Wulf, S. and Zolitschka, B.  1999.  Rapid environmental changes in southern Europe during the last glacial period.  Nature 400: 740-743.

Cannariato, K.G., Kennett, J.P. and Behl, R.J.  1999.  Biotic response to late Quaternary rapid climate switches in Santa Barbara Basin: Ecological and evolutionary implications.  Geology 27: 63-66.

Idso, S.B., Idso, C.D. and Idso, K.E.  2003.  The Specter of Species Extinction: Will Global Warming Decimate Earth's Biosphere.  Center for the Study of Carbon Dioxide and Global Change, Tempe, AZ, USA.

Parmesan, C. and Yohe, G.  2003.  A globally coherent fingerprint of climate change impacts across natural systems.  Nature 421: 37-42.

Root, T.L., Price, J.T., Hall, K.R., Schneider, S.H., Rosenzweig, C. and Pounds, J.A.  2003.  Fingerprints of global warming on wild animals and plants.  Nature 421: 57-60.

Schwing, F. and Moore, C.  2000.  A year without summer for California, or a harbinger of a climate shift.  EOS, Transactions, American Geophysical Union 81: 301,304-305.