Oceans of change: Sea level puts Florida in precarious position | Sustainable Tallahassee – Tallahassee.com

The more we learn about the interconnectedness of the Earth system the more widespread, profound and extensive the effects of climate change are becoming.
The combustion of fossil fuels composed of ancient organic carbon from land plants that decomposed and converted into coal, and marine algae that decomposed and converted into oil and natural gas, increases carbon dioxide in the atmosphere and consumes oxygen.
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Because atmospheric carbon dioxide is a minor gas in our modern atmosphere (~0.04%), small changes can have a big effect, while modifying oxygen, which is a much larger component (~21%), is much more difficult — although there have been minor changes in modern atmospheric oxygen.
There is now more carbon dioxide in the atmosphere than at any time in the past 15 million years.
Increases in atmospheric carbon dioxide are causing increases in global temperatures which have been linked to major climatic changes over the past several decades – sea-level rise, hydrologic cycle changes, the quantity and magnitude of severe events/storms, and ocean deoxygenation.
Florida is a coastal state which many of us love, explore, and cherish; however, modern climate-related impacts to our environments are occurring at an unprecedented rate, many of which have never been observed in Earth’s 4.6 billion year history. For example, the melting of glaciers is causing the most rapid sea-level rise ever recorded.
Regional sea-level rise from glacial melting is compounded by the loss of ice from northern portions of the North American continent creating a teeter-totter effect: when there is more ice Florida lifts ‘up’ a bit more compared to the ocean, and when there is less ice it ‘sinks’ more.
Currently, the loss of ice is increasing the volume of water and Florida is slowly sinking lower making Florida especially susceptible to changes in glaciation and sea level.
Additionally, increased atmospheric carbon dioxide directly affects our oceans. One impact is to increase the amount of carbon dioxide gas dissolved into the oceans, which due to complex carbonate chemistry, is converted to carbonic acid lowering the pH and resulting in increased acidity – also known as ocean acidification.
While the measured values seem small it has a large and complicated impact on ocean biology and chemistry. In the past 200 years, the ocean has become 30 percent more acidic — faster than any known change in ocean chemistry in the last 50 million years.
The most adverse effect is to organisms that produce skeletons made from calcium carbonate, such as corals, oysters, clams, mussels, and even primary microscopic producers.
The increased acidity not only dissolves the shells of some species, but is compounded as these creatures must now expend more energy to maintain their shells, which are used as structures and/or predatory defenses.
Recently it has been recognized that these organisms are becoming more susceptible to environmental diseases as they combat more acidic conditions and other environmental issues such as overfishing, higher temperatures, nutrient pollution, and reduced freshwater runoff.
This impacts vital reef complexes, fisheries, and local pristine beaches that are made of ancient carbonate skeletons with significant economic consequences.
The Big Bend and Florida, in general, also have a vast shoreline that contains large quantities of marshes, wetlands, and estuaries which are affected by many of the stressors resulting from modern human-induced climate change. This impacts their ecosystems, and, in turn, impacts many industries.
These areas are not only a refuge for many endangered species and vibrant ecosystems, but, importantly, a trap for excess carbon – thus, helping to reduce the effects of fossil fuel combustion such as ocean acidification and local and global sea-level rise.
Because they are highly productive they help to consume carbon dioxide and nutrients and, at the same time, accumulate large quantities of sediment. The sediments, being devoid of oxygen, help to slow down the consumption of organic matter, which would otherwise result in the release of carbon dioxide.
Thus, increasing the amount of organic matter that is buried allows these environments to be important carbon sinks. As a carbon sink, they help to lower atmospheric carbon dioxide and mitigate the effects of climate change.
Estuary sediments can store carbon 10 times as quickly as sediments in forests and, if undisturbed, can store carbon below ground for hundreds of thousands of years.
There have been significant discussions at all government levels about climate resilience and one of the most efficient strategies is to protect our current ecospaces, which already serve as natural capacitors to help regulate the climate system.
However, rapid sea-level rise and continued expansion of coastal construction threaten these vitally important environments.
If the world continues to lose such environments at our current pace it will only intensify the climate impacts that we are already experiencing.
Jeremy Owens, Ph.D, is an Associate Professor in FSU’s Department of Earth, Ocean and Atmospheric Science, and can be reached at [email protected] This is a “Greening Our Community” article, an initiative of Sustainable Tallahassee.  Learn more at www.SustainableTallahassee.org.
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The more we learn about the interconnectedness of the Earth system the more widespread, profound and extensive the effects of climate change are becoming.The combustion of fossil fuels composed of ancient organic carbon from land plants that decomposed and converted into coal, and marine algae that decomposed and converted into oil and natural gas, increases…

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