By SARAH SCHUMANN/ecoRI News contributor
NARRAGANSETT, R.I. — Scientists believe that climate change is affecting, and will continue to affect, New England waters. But just how much, how fast and in what way climate change impacts our oceans is hard to estimate.
These unknowns pose a challenge for long-term ecosystem planning efforts like Rhode Island's newly approved Ocean Special Area Management Plan (SAMP).
“The problem is that most of the climate change projections are done on really large scales, so trying to draw them down to a scale that’s useful is a challenge. In addition, the data out there is very sparse. As soon as you get in the offshore environment, the data sources drop off to almost non-existent,” said Grover Fugate, who who led the team that developed the SAMP
Despite unknowns, Fugate says that including potential climate change impacts in the SAMP was essential because “we recognize the climate change is going to be this huge modifier over the whole system.”
According to SAMP projections, sea surface temperatures (which are already increasing) are expected to increase another 4-8 degrees Fahrenheit by the end of the century. Already rising sea levels are expected to continue rising, and the latest predictions are even more dire than those of just a few years ago. These changes are likely to result in a slowing of the North Atlantic Ocean circulation and a 30 percent increase in hurricane damage by the end of the century.
An alteration in the ocean environment may result in climate changes could redesign the very ecosystem that the SAMP intends to protect. Warmer waters may lead to changes in timing of seasonal plankton blooms, disruption in animal migration schedules and disappearance of species at the southern end of their range, such as lobster.
Certain marine species are highly sensitive to climate change. Marine mammal populations suffer when sea ice disappears from their range. Sea birds, which raise few offspring each year, are dependent on climate for their breeding success. Endangered turtle species will have trouble finding appropriate nesting sites when beaches succumb to sea level rise.
By cataloging these potential impacts, the SAMP ensures an adaptive approach to marine planning.
Incorporating impacts of climate change into a plan of this scope, said Fugate, “has never been done before. And when you’ve got 50 percent of the United States still scratching their head over whether climate change is real or not, it’s still pretty new.”
Kevin Essington, director of government relations and communications at The Nature Conservancy and an advisor to the SAMP team said, “I think the SAMP asks the right kind of questions. More than anything, we need to be planning for a more dynamic system, with things changing in unexpected ways. We at The Nature Conservancy are glad that we live and work in a state where we have such forward-thinking agencies looking out for natural resources in light of climate change.”