Predictions and Projections

In the past few years, there has been great effort to develop conceptual and numerical models that aim to forecast the ecological and economical impacts of climate change on marine ecosystems. There are a dozen such projections in the current literature of which we will mention only a few examples. Paleontological studies of marine ecosystems can also aid in predicting how certain changes in ocean conditions might affect species and ecological communities. For example, Yasuhara et al. (2008) show how deep-sea benthic ecosystems communities collapsed several times during the past 20,000 years in correspondence with rapid climatic changes that lasted over centuries or less, demonstrating that climate change can have profound effects in the deep ocean and should therefore be considered in the current models. Scientists now attempt to model effects on local, regional, oceanic, or even whole-planet scales, depending on the question and information at hand.

On oceanic scales, a multispecies, functional group, coupled ocean-atmosphere model that examined mostly primary producers' response to regional biogeochemical conditions suggests significant changes by the end of this century in ecosystem structure, caused mostly by shifts in the areal extent of biomes (Boyd and Doney, 2002). Whitehead et al. (2008) examined the response of the other end of the food chain, deep-sea cetaceans, by studying their current distribution patterns in relation with sea-surface temperature, and concluded that climate change will cause declines of cetacean diversity across the tropics and increases at higher latitudes. In the coastal environment, the large, brackish, semi-enclosed Baltic Sea is predicted to freshen (owing to altered precipitation patterns) and warm up resulting in a shift in biodiversity due to the contraction of more marine species out of the system and the expansion of more freshwater species (Mackenzie et al., 2007). In several major US bays, Galbraith et al. (2002) predict that even with conservative estimates of climate change, sea-level rise will cause losses of intertidal areas that range between 20% and 70% of the current intertidal habitat that support extensive populations of migrating and wintering shore-birds. Such losses could considerably reduce the ability of these bays to support their present shorebird numbers.

Recent extensive reviews also attempt to predict the consequences of global climate change to marine ecosystems at different regions. Australia's marine life is projected to change considerably due to the multitude of present and future effects of climate change with the most serious and worrisome effects inflicted on the unique system of the Great Barrier Reef (Poloczanska et al., 2007). The small but highly diverse Mediterranean Sea is projected to transform its biological diversity due (among many other things) to climate change (Gambaiani et al., 2009). On Antarctic coasts, Smale and Barnes (2008) predict that the intensity of ice scouring will increase and later sedimentation and freshening events will become important, all leading to increased disturbance and considerable changes in benthic community structure and species distributions. And the list goes on.

Climate change is of course but one process by which humans are affecting marine biodiversity. To it, we can add invasions of alien species (that can be accelerated by climate change) and of course over-harvesting, pollution, and habitat destruction. Many of these threats may act in synergy and produce changes in biodiversity that are more pervasive than those caused by single disturbances (Sala and Knowlton, 2006). What then is the future of marine biodiversity in light of all these threats? Extinctions that are already happening will probably accelerate and the homogenization of communities due to climate effects and invasions will reduce the uniqueness of ecosystems on a global scale. Even if the current trends of destruction reverse at some point in the near future, recovery of individual species that were at the brink may take longer than expected because of Allee effects, changes in trophic community structure, difficult-to-reverse habitat changes, or a combination of several factors (Sala and Knowlton, 2006). Recovery of diversity at the community level will probably take much longer. Although the future seems grim for global biodiversity, both terrestrial and marine, we wish to conclude with a positive note that suggests that perhaps not all is doomed. Ehrlich and Pringle (2008) propose several strategies that, "if implemented soundly and scaled up dramatically, would preserve a substantial portion of global biodiversity." Those strategies include stabilization of human population, reduction of material consumption, the deployment of endowment funds, and taking major steps toward conservation using large, permanent, protected areas. This of course will require tremendous vision, effort, and mostly will by our species; however, mankind faced great challenges in the past and prevailed, and so we can only hope that it will rise again to face this climate change and biodiversity challenge.

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