The Ocean: Our Greatest Ally Against Climate Change

Cook Inlet Alaska

Off the coast of Alaska on a sunny summer afternoon, fishermen pull in their nets, before the tide gets too low, to bring in the day’s catch. With an abundance of King Salmon, Silver Salmon & Halibut, this will not only feed their families during the long winter months but provide much needed income to supplement those months as well. Just as the summer days are warm and lengthy in Alaska, as are the winter nights cold and long. The fishermen throwback any smaller fish, as they know that this system is fragile, and if the fish don’t come back the next year, they will lose their livelihoods.


The ocean is our greatest ally against climate change. They cover over 70% of the earth’s surface and not only do they play a crucial role in taking up CO2 from the atmosphere, but more than 3 billion people rely on the ocean for their livelihoods, the vast majority in developing countries.

Estimates suggest that around a quarter of CO2 emissions that human activity generates each year is absorbed by the oceans. They are a giant reservoir of heat and carbon—the oceans have taken up around 30-40% of the CO2 and 93% of the heat added to the atmosphere by humans since the beginning of the industrial revolution in the 1700’s. Therefore, without the ocean, the warming effects of climate change would be significantly larger and more detrimental.  

However, the ocean has limits. And when too much CO2 enters the ocean and warms the surface it disrupts the delicate balance of those coastal ecosystems. Like humans, most marine organisms are vulnerable to warming above their optimal temperature range, and it can impact how their organs function and/or lead to death. Our continual increase in carbon emissions are driving ocean warming and acidification, destroying biodiversity, and causing sea‑level rise that threatens heavily inhabited coastlines with storm surges, flooding, and other impacts.

It’s important to keep these systems intact so that they can continue to thrive for their own sake and also so that they can continue to support the people that rely on them the most, and all of us for generations to come. On the governmental level, pressuring leaders to make fishing more sustainable, properly treating sewage and other waste, add more serious protections for coastal ecosystems such as coral reefs and stop plastic trash from entering the water, is essential.

And as this work starts with the individual and changes on the community level, we can also each do our part to help plant trees or seagrass to stabilize soils, pick up all litter as streets and storm drains empty into rivers and streams that drain into our oceans, and being more mindful overall about how we interact with the ocean. Fisherman in Alaska demonstrate their respect for the ocean systems that provide for them by not taking more fish than they need and throwing back the younger ones so they can continue to reproduce. How are you practicing respect for how much the ocean provides for you?


Additional Reading

What is Biodiversity and Why does it Matter? – Ricochet Science

10 ways you can help protect oceans – Monga Bay

Explainer: Nine ‘tipping points’ that could be triggered by climate change – Climate Brief

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