In the last century, human activity has accelerated the rate of climate change to dangerous and unsustainable levels. From the increase in strength and frequency of weather events to rising sea surface temperatures, climate change is considered one of the 5 Major Threats to whales, dolphins and other marine wildlife identified through our research.
Some impacts are already being felt within ocean ecosystems, causing permanent ecosystem damage. One example is the impact a warming ocean has on coral reefs, which exist within a very small temperature range. When that range is exceeded for an extended length of time, the stressed corals “bleach,” or expel the algae living within them, leaving coral without a viable food source. This can lead to permanent death of a reef, shocking the entire coral reef ecosystem and negatively impacting biodiversity, food availability and shoreline protection.
Our planet’s rapid warming can alter ocean currents as sea-surface temperatures rise, resulting in potential habitat loss for whales and dolphins and greater competition for diminished supplies of prey species. This perfect storm of challenges threatens vital reproductive cycles for marine mammals that travel thousands of miles annually to feed, mate and bear young. If traditional feeding grounds no longer contain adequate food sources, the survivability of migratory whales will be profoundly affected.
Cetaceans that rely on the Arctic and the Antarctic polar regions will feel the greatest impacts of a warming ocean. Due to their slow population growth rates, close link between life history and water temperatures, and reliance on lower-level prey, baleen whales, such as humpbacks, are particularly vulnerable.
Climate change can also influence ocean chemistry due to increasing carbon dioxide (CO2) in Earth’s atmosphere—a byproduct of extracting and burning fossil fuel. This greenhouse gas traps radiant heat that otherwise would dissipate into space and is widely considered a primary driver of global warming. When the ocean absorbs too much CO2, seawater becomes more acidic and affects organisms’ ability to survive.
Whales, which function as living carbon sinks absorbing and entrapping massive amounts of carbon, help combat climate change simply by existing, making measures that ensure their survival critical in fighting this existential threat.
For more than 40 years, Pacific Whale Foundation (PWF) has worked to protect the ocean and marine mammals, such as whales and dolphins through science and advocacy. Through our robust Research, Education and Conservation programs, we inform the public on ways to reduce their own impact, devise mitigation strategies and fight for change at the policy level. However, tackling the issue of climate change requires a holistic approach involving collective action at individual, industry, state, national and global levels.