56% of ocean waters have changed colour due to climate change: Study
Over 56 per cent of the world’s oceans — an area larger than the Earth’s total landmass — has changed colour over the last two decades and human-caused climate change is likely the reason, new research has revealed.
These colour changes — subtle to the human eye — cannot be explained by natural, year-to-year variability alone, researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), US, and other institutes have written in their paper published in the journal Nature.
Why oceans change colour
The ocean colour is a literal reflection of the life and materials in its waters. In regions near the equator, it was found to have steadily turned greener over time, indicating changes in the ecosystems within the surface oceans.
The green colour of the ocean waters comes from the green pigment chlorophyll present in phytoplankton, the plant-like microbes abundant in the upper ocean. Scientists are, therefore, keen to monitor phytoplankton to see their response to climate change.
However, the authors of the study showed through previous studies that it would take 30 years of tracking chlorophyll changes before climate-change-driven trends would show, because natural, annual variations in chlorophyll would overwhelm those influenced by human activities.
In a 2019 paper, Stephanie Dutkiewicz and her colleagues showed that monitoring other ocean colours, whose annual variations are much smaller than those of chlorophyll, would convey clearer signals of climate-change-driven changes and that they might even be apparent in 20 years, rather than 30.
“It’s worth looking at the whole spectrum, rather than just trying to estimate one number from bits of the spectrum,” said lead author BB Cael of the National Oceanography Center.
How the study was done
Cael and team then statistically analysed all the seven ocean colours recorded by satellite observations from 2002 to 2022 together. He initially studied the colours’ natural variations by seeing how they changed regionally in a given year. He then observed how these annual variations changed over two decades.
To understand climate change’s contribution to all these changes, he used Dutkiewicz’s 2019 model to simulate the Earth’s oceans under two scenarios — one with greenhouse gases and the other without them.
The greenhouse-gas model predicted changes to the colour of about 50 per cent of the world’s surface oceans in under 20 years — close to Cael’s conclusions from his real-world satellite data analysis.
“This suggests that the trends we observe are not a random variation in the Earth system,” said Cael. “This is consistent with anthropogenic climate change.”
“I’ve been running simulations that have been telling me for years that these changes in ocean colour are going to happen,” said Dutkiewicz, senior research scientist in MITs Department of Earth, Atmospheric and Planetary Sciences.
“To actually see it happening for real is not surprising, but frightening. And these changes are consistent with man-induced changes to our climate,” she said.
(With agency inputs)