Office of National Marine Sanctuaries
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Climate change is happening and human activities are contributing to and accelerating it. Climate change has consequences for people, the planet, and the ocean, including national marine sanctuaries. In general, the sites in the National Marine Sanctuary System will experience the same types of climate change impacts that will be felt in the broader marine and coastal environments, including changes in water temperatures and oceanic circulation, rising sea levels, increasing ocean acidification, changes in precipitation and storms, and their associated effects.

What National Marine Sanctuaries Will Face

bleached coral
Bleached coral. (Photo: NOAA)
Changes in water temperature and oceanic circulation may disrupt coastal upwelling systems and associated productivity, which can in turn produce far-reaching disruptions throughout the marine food web. As the ocean warms, populations or entire species may shift their ranges, distributions, and abundances (including endangered species, valuable fisheries, and invasive species) or alter the timing of critical life events like hatching or spawning. Populations or species that move outside of a sanctuary will lose the valuable protection provided by the regulations and programs of that sanctuary.

Changing coastal and marine habitats will likely be seen as well. Coral reefs may bleach and die during prolonged episodes of ocean warming. Rising sea levels and flooding caused by heavy storms will affect the coastal ecosystems of national marine sanctuaries through salt water intrusion, inundation, and erosion, among other impacts. Coral reefs, sea grass beds, mangroves, marshes, barrier islands, and other habitats that only exist within a certain temperature or activity zone will shift where they are able. Where shorelines have been hardened (e.g. with seawalls or riprap) or coastal margins developed, these habitats may not be able to shift and will be lost. Sea level rise may lead to saltwater intrusion affecting estuarine and freshwater habitats, adversely affecting species and habitats that are sensitive to salinity shifts. Sandy beaches, which serve as critical habitat for some species such as shorebirds and nesting sea turtles, will also erode and be lost.

Ocean acidification, caused by increased levels of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the ocean, may fundamentally change habitats, food webs, and marine life by reducing the capacity of corals, crustaceans, shellfish, and plankton to form shells and skeletons, thus impeding their survival. Declines in plankton would create consequences for species throughout higher levels of the food chain. As the degree of ocean acidification intensifies, it is already affecting economically important shellfish fisheries, and will eventually have impacts on all living marine resources.

image of a swimming pteropod
These free-swimming planktonic molluscs, Limacina helicina, form a calcium carbonite shell made of aragonite that is impacted by ocean acidification. (Photo: NOAA)

The impacts from sea level rise, ocean warming, changes in oceanic circulation, ecosystem/biome shifts, and ocean acidification will compound problems that already degrade ocean and coastal ecosystems. Overfishing depletes fish populations below levels necessary to sustain healthy marine ecosystems and commercially viable fisheries, while water pollution creates inhospitable conditions for estuaries, seagrass beds, and coral reefs, as well as valuable fish and shellfish species that rely on these habitats for survival. Although the degree to which they are affected varies depending on their location, most national marine sanctuaries are contending with some or all of these stressors. A more concerted effort to restore, preserve, and protect the ecological integrity and resilience of ocean and coastal ecosystems is necessary so they can withstand the additional stress of climate change. Healthy ecosystems will be more resilient to ocean warming, sea level rise and other climate change impacts.

When combined with other problems already facing the ocean, including pollution, habitat destruction, and overfishing, the combined impact will be even worse. Faced with these kinds of issues, what can national marine sanctuaries do to address such large-scale, far-reaching problems? In general, the long-term, place-based nature of national marine sanctuaries provides a distinct advantage in addressing the impacts of climate change.

What National Marine Sanctuaries Can Do

National marine sanctuaries reduce other ocean stressors. National marine sanctuaries have a stable, permanent legal and management infrastructure to protect resources. They provide opportunities for the implementation of management measures to mitigate climate change impacts, or at a minimum, reduce other stressors. Protective actions within national marine sanctuaries also have beneficial effects outside their boundaries, such as the protection of bordering or buffering habitats and the production of larvae, juveniles, and adults of marine species that "spill over" into outside areas. National marine sanctuaries and other protected areas can also serve as important carbon sinks. Over one-half (55%) of the biological carbon stored globally is contained by living marine organisms. National marine sanctuaries that protect habitats such as salt marshes, mangroves, and algal and seagrass beds, all of which store carbon, help mitigate climate change impacts. Learn more about the Climate Smart Sanctuaries Initiative and other adaptation projects.

National marine sanctuaries serve as sentinel sites to monitor changes. National marine sanctuaries, with their place-based focus, long term data sets, and controlled activities, are able to serve as "sentinel sites" (intensely monitored coastal and marine environments) for monitoring of climate change and other impacts. Real-time results from research and monitoring programs; advice and feedback from stakeholders; and long-term synthesized information from condition reports all feed into decision-making for a sanctuary. The sanctuary superintendents can react in real time to this information and address existing or emerging threats and impacts. Examples of such adaptive management mechanisms include revisions to regulations and management plans, emergency regulations, permitting activities, consultation requirements, and habitat restoration strategies that improve ecosystem resilience. Learn more about our climate science and monitoring projects.

National marine sanctuaries inform the public and local communities about climate change and provide examples of conservation actions. As place-based stewardship featuring onsite managers and staff, local offices and visitor facilities, educational programs, and advisory councils, national marine sanctuaries are an established and trusted presence in local communities. Information coming from a sanctuary, including information about climate impacts, may be trusted more than from other sources, and may help make climate change "real" for local residents. National marine sanctuaries are working to reduce the environmental footprint of their offices and facilities, and ensure that their day-to-day operations are conducted in the most environmentally sound manner as possible. This neighborhood approach can help motivate individual citizens, local communities, and coastal decision-makers to take action through volunteer efforts, advisory and friends groups, and other mechanisms. Learn more about national climate literacy efforts and our greening and mitigation projects.

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Revised July 31, 2017 by Sanctuaries Web Team | Contact Us | Web Site Owner: National Ocean Service
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