Increasing Sea Temperatures Already Cause Changes in Distribution of Marine Life

There is increasing evidence from a number of regions in the world of a poleward movement of warmer water species of plankton, fish, benthic and intertidal organisms in the last 50 years.  These biogeographic changes have been observed in both the northern and southern hemispheres (e.g. NE Atlantic, Tasman Sea, China Sea, Bering Sea). The clearest evidence of the changes has been obtained by the Continuous Plankton Recorder (CPR) survey in the Northeast Atlantic. Here, warmer water copepod species (crustaceans) moved northwards by 10° of latitude (~1000 km)  within 40 years up to 1999, a pattern that has continued since. 

Figure 19:With melting sea ice and warming of the oceans, marine species change their distributions, affecting entire food chains and ocean productivity. In 2005 the subtropical dinoflagellate Ceratium hexacanthum was found in CPR samples from the North Sea at levels that were 6 standard deviations above previous measurements since 1958. Further evidence of this warning signal is seen in the appearance of a Pacific planktonic plant (a diatom Neodenticula seminae) in the Northwest Atlantic for the first time in 800,000 years, by transfer across the top of Canada due to the rapid melting of Arctic ice in 1998.

Species that are representative of Arctic and cold temperate waters have shown a similar movement, retreating to the north. Other studies have shown an increase in the northerly range of a number of warm temperate and subtropical fish species with evidence for dispersion along the continental slope to the west of Europe and in some cases establishment of breeding populations of species such as red mullet, anchovies and sardines in the North Sea, much further north than ever recorded before.

In the case of the Northeast Atlantic the changes are clearly linked to rising sea temperatures and are correlated with Northern Hemisphere temperature and the North Atlantic Oscillation (NAO), the dominant mode of atmospheric variability in the North Atlantic. These correlations suggest that the changes may be a response at an ocean basin scale to what may be a global signal. The changes observed so far in the North Sea have taken place with a temperature increase of only about 0.5°C. Temperatures are expected to continue to increase, with a possible annual average increase of 6°C north of the latitude of Scotland by 2100 which, if it occurs, will lead to a further poleward movement of marine organisms.

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