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Climate Change, the Ocean and Us


Moderator Kai Pfundt opened the last event of the lecture series "Global Solutions for Sustainable Development". 


SAB member Susan Avery talked about the impact of global warming on the ocean and the interrelation of the atmosphere, the sea surface, and the deep ocean.


Clemens Simmer from the Meteorological Institute of the University of Bonn commented on Susan Avery's talk.


The audience was invidet to join the final discussion at the end of the event.


[Global Solutions] About 100 guests joined the last lecture of our lecture series "Global Solutions for Sustainable Development". Susan Avery and Clemens Simmer talked about climate change and its impact on the oceans.

“The fundamental reason that the atmosphere matters to the ocean and the ocean to the atmosphere is that they exchange heat, moisture, momentum, nutrients, and biogeochemical properties.”
Susan Avery, the member of UN-Secretary General Ban Ki-moon’s Scientific Advisory Board, talked about the relation between climate change, oceanology, and humanity. She started her lecture by drawing attention to the interrelation of the atmosphere and the ocean. She highlighted changes to circulation within the ocean and the atmosphere with a particular relation to the so-called ‘cold blob’ in the North Atlantic – a large area of unusually chilly sea-surface temperatures. Despite the fact that there can always be irregularities on the sea-surface, this area, about the size of half the United States, seems to remain unusually long in the North Atlantic Ocean, and it can have unpredictable, adverse impacts on the weather, for instance on the development of hurricanes, due to ocean currents. To understand these irregularities, international organizations from Europe, USA, Canada, China, and other parts of the world collaborate and exchange information and data. The important goal is to learn as much as possible about the ‘cold blob’ to be able to react appropriately if there would be a sudden change in the circulation. A change in its intensity or location would have dramatic consequences for the weather in this part of the world.
“If you look at these indicators, a lot of them involve the ocean. In a sense, in many ways, the ocean is the memory of the climate system and the atmosphere is the messenger.”Furthermore, Susan Avery pointed out that the changes of the atmosphere with consequences on the temperature are not new insights but recognized aspects since the beginning of the 19th century. She outlined the most important indicators of climate change as the rise of the sea surface temperature or the ocean heat content. Thus, global warming equals, at least to some extent, ocean warming. The deep sea responds to surface climate on the order of decades and the heat caused by the climate change will linger in the deep ocean – once it has reached this area – for a few thousand years. Also, the ocean takes up to 90% of the extra heating in the earth system and thus, according to Susan Avery, “we should be very lucky that our climate change is not worse”. However, she pointed out that the most noticeable consequences of global warming will relate to changes in the water cycle and freshwater availability: the dry areas of the planet will most likely get dryer, the wet ones wetter.
“We really need to be concerned not just about the surface of our planet but what’s happening all the way down into the deepest parts of the ocean. True, it is dark. True, it is cold. But there is life.
At the end of her presentation, Susan Avery underlined the importance of the science-policy-society interface which is necessary to combat climate change and create sustainable forms of living worldwide. As the Sustainable Development Goals number 13 and 14 relate to climate change and the ocean, some of the most important research questions, in a wider sense, currently include aspects like the ecosystem behavior can be forecasted or how the management of the water supplies could adapt to any possible changes of the water cycle.
“We had the possibility to dumb, let’s say, most of the collateral damage [of e.g. the industrial revolution] just into the ocean – but now it’s coming back.”
Clemens Simmer, Professor for General and Experimental Meteorology at the Meteorological Institute (MIUB) at the University of Bonn, added some further perspectives to Susan Avery’s lecture. He pointed out that if the ocean had not been able to take up this massive amount of energy and heat that humanity created and creates, an industrial revolution would have simply not been possible. The effects of it would have been seen and felt immediately. Now that we have to find a way to cope successfully with the challenges approaching us, the large-scale climate models are not sufficient anymore, but they have to be way more detailed. In the concluding discussion with the audience, questions about, for instance, geoengineering and its impact on the ocean, the sufficiency of the available data, and possible worst case climate scenarios were addressed.

  • See our Storify. 
  • Video Statement by Susan Avery. (coming soon)

The lecture series is coorganised by the German Commission for UNESCO, the Forum Internationale Wissenschaft (fiw) and the Liaison Office International Academic Sciences of the UN City of Bonn. 
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