Mar 9, 2018

Climate change threatens coastal life as we know it


The Gulf of Maine is getting warm — quick. From 2004–2013, sea temperatures there rose faster than almost any other location on Earth.

Why it matters: The Gulf is home to a number of endangered species, and the fisheries there bring in several billion dollars per year to the U.S. and Canada, but the Gulf’s future hangs in the balance. Researchers are scrambling to understand what the warming water means for the people and animals who rely on the ecosystem, particularly as the changes there provide a glimpse into the future of coastlines around the world.

Why it's warming

The Gulf of Maine lies at the intersection of several major ocean currents, including the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation, which moves dense, cold water down and toward the equator. Fresh water from melting sea ice seems to be weakening this current, which could be causing the Gulf to warm faster than other regions.

A combination of cold winters, warm summers, and dramatic tides make the Gulf one of the most productive ecosystems in the ocean. It's a critical habitat for right whales, seabirds like puffins, humpback whales, bluefin tuna and other species.

If it changes, it will have effects on all of those animals. But it’s also a human place. There are important social and cultural connections people have with this water. If a town loses its identity as a fishing community, it loses part of its history in addition to the economic losses.”

— Andrew Pershing, chief science officer at the Gulf of Maine Research Institute


The bottom line: When we talk about warming waters, we often talk about shifting populations. Questions revolve around whether or not species will move north fast enough to survive rapidly warming waters. But the recent warming in the Gulf reveals something dramatic: even if animals like right whales follow the cold water north, the habitats they’re entering may not be able to support them.