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COMFORT project warns of irreversible damage to marine environment
Climate change, pollution and overfishing threaten our oceans. The EU-COMFORT project calls for imminent greenhouse gas reduction to limit irreversible damage.
"Our oceans suffer from multiple stressors. Greenhouse gas emissions, plastic waste, and inputs from fertilizers and animal farming add pressure on marine ecosystems. Human societies must realize that freedom does not equate to unlimited resource use and unsustainable lifestyles", says Professor Christoph Heinze. He is the leader of COMFORT, a four-year research project funded by the EU's Horizon 2020 programme.
COMFORT has investigated at which point the progressing levels of CO2 emissions, warming, and acidification cross tipping points for oceanic environmental conditions.
A tipping point refers to a critical threshold beyond which a system reorganizes, often abruptly and/or irreversibly.
The project's findings are alarming.
According to the research, tipping points have already been reached in several marine ecosystems, including the North Sea, due to climate change and overfishing.
"Warming, acidification, and deoxygenation are all factors that increase the likelihood of oceans reaching their tipping points. If marine systems cross their tipping points and undergo a shift from one stable state to another stable state, the effects may be severe and long lasting", says Heinze.
All the main findings from COMFORT are outlined in the project's recently released Policy Brief. The document highlights the severity of the ocean crisis.
Harmful algal blooms triggered by marine heatwaves are leading to fish deaths. The Arctic Ocean is warming two times faster than the rest of the globe, leading to more 'dead zones' where most marine life cannot survive. Tropical fish stocks are projected to decline by up to 40% by the 2050s.
"Marine food production can go down significantly in some regions, people need to explore alternative sources to secure their income, and competition about natural resources can get more adverse", Heinze warns.
Despite the dire situation, there is still some hope, according to the research team. They have identified solutions that can mitigate the impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems. Greenhouse gas (GHG) reduction and nature-based solutions are presented as the two main ways of preventing irreversible damage to our oceans.
GHG reduction refers to reducing emissions from gases such as carbon dioxide, methane, and nitrous oxide.
Nature-based solutions involve working with nature to address the impacts of climate change and protect marine ecosystems. These solutions include measures such as restoring wetlands, mangroves, and seagrass beds, creating artificial reefs, and implementing sustainable fishing practices.
"Personally, I prefer to be a bit careful with the use of the term 'nature-based solutions' as it may imply that nature will somehow be able to fix any crises. That might be the case, but possibly with a negative outcome for human beings. The most important thing is to slow greenhouse gas emissions in a timely manner. By timely, I mean now", says Heinze.
"The more we can reduce further warming and related further uptake of CO2 by the oceans, the easier and faster the ocean can dilute the added heat and acidity", he adds.
Heinze does not believe that CO2 removal (CDR) is a viable way to save our oceans.
"The idea that we can go on emitting greenhouse gases and take them out of the Earth system later is an illusion. COMFORT investigated selected options for marine based carbon dioxide removal as a potential mitigation option. Poor efficiency, lack of technological maturity, problems concerning upscaling to larger regions, and possible negative side effects make me pessimistic concerning technical solutions for the ocean's problems", he says.
The project's final general assembly, which took place in Bergen 9-12 May, marked the culmination of the COMFORT team's extensive research. There, the results of the project and recommended solutions were presented to more than 80 attendees.
"The participants at the general assembly kept a cool head and tried to deal with the problems rationally. COMFORT was a project under one of the IPCC-related calls for proposals, and it was among the top contributing EU climate projects for the recent IPCC AR6 (6th assessment report). So we can definitely say that we have delivered further good arguments for trying out all efforts towards limiting climate change", says Heinze.
The attendees all agreed that the time to act is now.
"There is widespread agreement among scientists on how to react to the progressing human-made climate forcings. We have to move faster away from fossil fuels, save energy, change agricultural practices and our diets, and we have to revise urban planning towards climate friendliness", says Heinze.
COMFORT is nearing its end, but the team of scientists is still working on some publications and data sets within the framework of the project. They are also participating in proposals to continue the work from COMFORT.
"The next generation of scientists is extremely skilled, fast, and hardworking, and they have a good mindset towards tackling complex problems in a team. Their work on the proposals looks promising", says Heinze.
He expresses deep gratitude to colleagues who participated in COMFORT and helped make the effort possible.
"Those involved deserve a big thank you. UiB and the Geophysical Institute have been excellent places to carry out research based academic education."
He highlights the importance of UiB continuing to participate in international projects in the future.
"The first-hand knowledge coming from international collaborations is feeding directly into our teaching, providing inspiration and new cutting-edge information to our students. This concerns not only factual knowledge, but also the instruments and 'skill sets' needed to tackle the big challenges of the coming years and decades. I wish that UiB also in the future will support and extend the fertile ground for leading and participating in international projects."