Changing Sanctuaries: How National Marine Sanctuaries are Meeting the Challenges of Climate Change

By Zachary Cannizzo

Changes in climate are impacting the health of your national marine sanctuaries and the communities who depend on them. Warming temperatures, rising seas, and waters that are becoming more acidic are just some of the changes faced by corals, whales, birds, fish, shipwrecks, and thousands of other cultural and living resources that make our sanctuaries a national and global treasure. These are not theoretical future changes. Scientists have been observing these changes for several years and have documented them in the literature.

In order to continue protecting America's most iconic natural and cultural marine resources, it is important to consider the impacts of a changing climate. NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is investigating how each sanctuary and marine monument is affected by climate change, now and in the future, and is working with local communities to address these impacts.

Bleached coral on a reef
The impacts of climate change, such as this bleached coral in National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, are affecting all of our national marine sanctuaries. To meet this challenge, we must first understand the local effects of the changing climate. Photo: Wendy Cover/NOAA

The first step in addressing climate change is to understand it. While we have a good understanding of what the large-scale effects of climate change are likely to be, there are differences in the rate and extent of change from place to place. For example, even though sea level is rising worldwide due to the thermal expansion of sea water and the melting of glaciers, differences in local factors such as currents, changes in land height, and even the Earth’s gravitational field, cause changes in relative sea level to vary from place to place. This means that sea level rise is impacting some areas faster than others. For example, sea level is rising in Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary much faster than sanctuaries along the West Coast. In the northern portion of Olympic Coast National Marine Sanctuary, the net sea level is falling because the land is still rebounding since the last glaciation thousands of years ago.

These place-to-place differences in how climate change is expressed make it important to explore the changes happening on a local scale. For this reason, we published a new series, National Marine Sanctuary Climate Change Impacts Profiles, and are now one step closer to understanding the changes that are already occurring at national marine sanctuaries, the threats these changes pose to wildlife and resources, and how these changes are expected to continue impacting sanctuaries in the future. The profiles represent a review and summary of the best available, most up-to-date science and serve as an early step in understanding how climate change affects national marine sanctuaries and the underwater treasures they protect.

Free diver over a wreck just beneath the surface.
The newly published climate impacts profiles summarize the current and projected impacts of climate change on sanctuary resources including shipwrecks like the steamship Portland in Thunder Bay National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Tane Casserley/NOAA.

Each profile contains a summary of some of the most pressing climate change impacts within each sanctuary (e.g., temperature, ocean acidification, sea level rise, changing storm and weather patterns, deoxygenation). Each profile also features case studies that reveal how climate change could affect key resources, and information about how NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is addressing these impacts. By summarizing the effects of climate change, we can begin to assess the scope of the issue, determine risks to the underwater treasures sanctuaries protect, and prioritize solutions to address the pressing problems of climate change.

Sanctuaries around the country are leveraging the power of partnerships to understand and address climate impacts. For example, scientists at Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary are conducting groundbreaking research on the effect of ocean acidification on sand lance. This fish is a vital species in the sanctuary, serving as prey for shearwaters, humpback whales, and many other important and iconic species. This type of research helps us to better understand the current and future impacts of climate change, a critical step in determining risks and developing solutions. As the waters of the sanctuary are considered highly vulnerable to future acidification, understanding its effects on such key species is important for future management.

A gull with a sand lance in its mouth.
Sand lance are a critical food source for many species in Stellwagen Bank National Marine Sanctuary. The sanctuary is conducting groundbreaking research to understand how ocean acidification is affecting this important fish species. Photo: Peter Flood.

Scientific research is not the only way to understand how sanctuary resources are affected by climate change. Many sanctuaries have developed climate vulnerability assessments. These powerful tools allow managers at places like Greater Farallones and Cordell Bank national marine sanctuaries to gain a better understanding of the vulnerability of resources and habitats like krill, kelp, and estuaries to the expected impacts of climate change. By bringing together scientific experts and resource managers, vulnerability assessments allow us to begin prioritizing management actions by assessing the relative risk of climate change impacts on the resources sanctuaries protect.

Once we have a basic understanding of the scope of the problem and the risks associated with climate change, we can begin to prioritize and develop solutions. Mission: Iconic Reefs lays out a detailed plan to restore seven iconic coral reef sites within Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Understanding and addressing the impacts of climate change on these reefs, which is just one of the stressors they face, is an important aspect of the plan. Successful ecosystem restoration involves identifying organisms that are well-adapted to current and future environmental conditions. This plan, jointly developed with research and management partners, includes strategies such as determining which corals are more resilient in the face of climate impacts, like rising temperatures and ocean acidification, and growing climate-resistant, disease-resistant, and rapid-growing coral species in nurseries to aid restoration.

Diver tending to a coral tree.
One of the many ways that sanctuaries are addressing climate change is through targeted restoration such as working with partners to grow and transplant climate-resilient corals at Florida Keys National Marine Sanctuary. Photo: Daryl Duda.

The steps we are taking to assess and address the impacts of climate change on the underwater treasures that sanctuaries protect are important, but we cannot do it alone. Community engagement and education is a vital part of a successful strategy to address climate change. Each sanctuary incorporates communication and community engagement programs focused on climate change and its impact on ocean resources. At National Marine Sanctuary of American Samoa, the sanctuary incorporates climate change messaging into their outreach to local communities through initiatives such as the Sanctuary Summer Science in the Village program and is developing a community-facing web portal with information about the local impacts of climate change. The sanctuary also incorporates traditional Samoan knowledge and cultural practices into its management, which brings important lessons on stewardship during times of environmental change. This engagement and communication strategy, and others across sanctuaries, are critical to increase awareness and understanding of climate change, a vital step in meeting the challenges it presents.

Two researchers hold yellow shell models on a boat.
Communication and outreach such as teacher workshops at Channel Islands National Marine Sanctuary is an important part of increasing awareness and understanding of the effects of climate change and meeting the challenges it presents. Photo:Laura Francis/NOAA.

NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries is working with local communities to understand and address the impacts of climate change to ensure that sanctuaries provide jobs, recreation, and opportunities for future generations. With the publication of the National Marine Sanctuary Climate Change Impacts Profiles, we have taken an important step in the ongoing mission to understand and address climate change’s current and future impacts on national marine sanctuaries and the underwater treasures they protect.

Dr. Zachary Cannizzo is the Visiting Climate Scientist and Climate Coordinator at NOAA’s Office of National Marine Sanctuaries and the NOAA Climate Program Office and is the primary author of the National Marine Sanctuary Climate Impacts Profiles.