Oceans are fascinating because of the diversity of habitats they contain. Compared with habitats found on land, ocean habitats are more transient and depend on variable weather patterns.
Yet, weather patterns are a function of the underlying planetary climate, which has been undergoing many changes since the industrial revolution. This means that the future of ocean habitats is uncertain and dependent on human activity.
In this article, we consider the future of ocean habitats, focusing initially on a brief overview of these marine environments before analyzing coral reefs.
What is a Habitat?
First, a habitat is any kind of environment in which an organism lives. These locations attract organisms by offering food, shelter, and community for reproduction. Organisms typically enter into a mutualistic relationship with their environment, as these places consist of other living organisms like plants and other animals.
Ocean Habitat Facts
Ocean habitats are distinguished from freshwater by their salt content and are categorized by their proximity to the shoreline. In particular, coastal habitats extend from the shoreline to the continental shelf whereas open ocean habitats extend from the continental shelf to the deepest parts of the ocean.
About 70% of the planet’s surface is comprised of oceans.
Even more amazingly, the majority of all marine life is located in coastal habitats, which makes these regions of the world the most concentrated in terms of biodiversity.
Even further, the Pacific Ocean is the largest ocean in the world and can fit all the other oceans within its area. Within the Pacific Ocean, coral reefs function as the habitat for 25% of all marine species. These dense marine ecosystems are extremely sensitive and are critical to the harmony of both the ocean and the planet.
Predicting Future Ocean Habitats
Predicting how the ocean will look in the future is no easy task due to the size of the ocean and the number of factors involved. It can help to isolate a particular habitat for analysis and then to extend our conclusions to the ocean at large. The fascinatingly complex coral reefs are the perfect place to start.
Coral reefs represent a dense ecosystem that attracts many different types of marine animals and plants. They are named after coral, which are collections of tiny sac-like invertebrates that secrete calcium carbonate to form a hard skeleton.
Coral usually huddle together to form colonies, and the density of this formation attracts many other ocean animals and ocean plants, like algae, sponges, reef octopuses, various fish, sea snakes, sea turtles, and sea birds.
They are often called the “rainforests of the sea” and like their land counterparts, are extremely vulnerable to human activated climate change.
Coral Reef Threats
When humans cut down trees and burn fossil fuels, carbon dioxide is released into the atmosphere, and some of this is absorbed by the oceans. This creates a series of chemical reactions which increases the acidity of the water, making it difficult for some species to produce calcium carbonate.
Since corals rely on calcium carbonate to protect themselves from predators and the corrosive effects of algae, this ocean acidification endangers their existence as well as the many species that interact with the ecosystem they foster.
Additionally, increasing Carbon Dioxide levels in the atmosphere leads to warmer temperatures, melted ice caps, and rising ocean levels. Yet, coral reefs have adapted to a very particular depth and temperature of water. This is because each organism in the ecosystem has its own unique evolutionary needs, and even the most minor shift can disrupt the harmony of the system.
Coral reefs are also a hotbed for fishers who use dangerous equipment to catch food. This equipment can damage the coral reefs if it is lost, making the coral reef more susceptible to bioerosion.
About half of the coral reefs in the world are affected by these changes, and some experts think that the same number will be dead within 10 years. This could influence all ocean habitats which are connected on some level to coral reefs.
What We Think About the Future of Ocean Habitats
We don’t think the future looks too promising considering the state of coral reefs. Even though coral reefs are considered some of the most sensitive ecosystems in the ocean, this distinction is ultimately a function of our scientific knowledge.
Ultimately, all ecosystems are interconnected and are similarly sensitive. It just depends on what factors we consider and how much we know about these habitats.
While we think coral reefs and ocean life more generally is resilient, it’s unclear how these rich sources of life will adapt in the future.
Yet, we are also optimistic about the future considering recent movements towards sustainability and permaculture. If humans continue to promote alternative forms of energy and focus on keeping oceans clean and protected, then we predict that ocean habitats will coexist peacefully with humans well into the future.