Addressing Climate Change in Australian Marine Ecosystems

by Weronika Konwent

Australia’s diverse marine environment is under threat from varied effects of climate change such as marine heat waves, ocean acidification, floods, and tropical cyclones. Various organisms spanning many habitats are affected, including fish, seabirds, marine turtles, coral, and marine invertebrates, many of which are keystone species that influence the structure of a particular community. It is important to study and understand the impact of ecological changes on the habitat and its inhabitants in order to preserve them as effectively as possible.

The study of climate change effect on marine habitats is shifting towards a study of thresholds at which a small change in conditions can have a massive effect on the ecosystem. Effects of such thresholds are often very sudden and extremely difficult to bounce back from, so emphasis is being placed on avoiding thresholds, and instead focusing on resilience techniques that allow organisms to forestall major environmental shifts. Management of local pressures is an effective strategy used to improve ecosystem resilience, but the dynamic and delicate nature of marine habitats precludes the possibility of using this as an absolute solution. While there exist many preservation methods, the most politically popular and easy to integrate is the marine protected area. MPAs have long shown a history of effectiveness, yet as a response to climate change they may leave something to be desired. Their lack of direct address of climate change factors detracts from their utility. Limitations on human pressures exist, but are not being enacted effectively enough to impact ecosystem resilience. The rapid rate of climate change also limits the feasibility of long-term projects, which may mean that researchers will simply have to trust in the adaptive properties of genetic diversity. As climate change places additional stress upon already weakened marine habitats, MPAs will be effective only as supplemental protection against everyday pressures. Instead, a more comprehensive program that encompasses ecological resilience, ecosystem protection, and anthropogenic limits will need to be adopted.

Johnson J.E., Holbrook N.J., 2014. Adaptation of Australia’s Marine Ecosystems to Climate Change: Using Science to Inform Conservation Management. International Journal of Ecology 2014.

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