Study tracks devastating marine heatwaves

An international study has tracked the alarming impacts of marine heatwaves on the broader ocean environment and ecosystems, revealing the flow on effects that such phenomena have on the world’s oceans.

The international team of researchers, including a team from the University of Western Australia, shows that periods of extreme temperatures can have devastating effects on marine habitat, local extinctions, reduced fisheries catchments and altered ocean food webs.

UWA’s Associate Professor Thomas Wernberg, one of the lead authors of the study, said that the research clearly demonstrated that regardless of where a marine heatwave may occur, it often has negative impacts on all kinds of marine organisms, including plankton, seaweed, coral, fish, birds and mammals. “The study identifies species and ecosystems at their warm range margins as being particularly at risk, which is perhaps not surprising as they live close to their upper thermal tolerance,” Associate Professor Wernberg said. “The major concern is that the oceans have warmed significantly as a consequence of man-made climate change, so that marine heatwaves have become more frequent. Just as atmospheric heatwaves can destroy crops, forests and animal populations, marine heatwaves can devastate ocean ecosystems. “Across Australia we have seen severe impacts of extreme events and marine heatwaves for a range of locations and organisms – coral reefs, mangroves, seagrass beds and kelp forests have all been severely impacted in recent years.”

The authors conclude that climate change will continue to increase the severity of marine heatwaves, and the associated impacts on marine biology could have far-reaching consequences for marine ecosystems and the many benefits humans derive from the oceans.

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