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Why 2014's record-breaking ocean temperatures matter

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(Photo Credit: EarthFix via Flickr)

By Jodi Stark, public engagement specialist

Our oceans are changing. They're still wet, salty and filled with fish, whales, clam beds, barnacles, sea birds, plankton, kelp, nudibranchs and billions of other creatures and plants. But sea levels are rising. Seasonal patterns are shifting. New critters are showing up where they've never been seen before. Others are disappearing.

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Our ever-changing oceans are becoming even more dynamic and less predictable.

Highest ocean temperatures ever recorded

Climate change data show rising global land, sea and air temperatures. For six consecutive months in 2014, scientists announced record-breaking global ocean temperatures. And with measurements going back 1,620 months — to 1880 — these records carry weight.

In October 2014, The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration National Climatic Data Center again confirmed dramatic changes in ocean and land temperatures. We're also seeing more erratic, anomalous and extreme weather events.

Warm temperatures invite new species, threaten native ones

Mola mola Mola mola (sunfish, normally found in warmer waters), were spotted off the coast of Haida Gwaii. Photo credit: Haida Style Expeditions.

Ocean Networks Canada's summer 2014 research showed the warmest surface water temperature in decades in the Pacific Northwest, with a large area nearly three degrees above average.

Rising water temperatures appear to be driving species northward beyond their traditional ranges. For example, Mola mola (sunfish), thresher sharks and Humboldt squid are now being spotted as far north as Alaska. It's not known how these expanding territories will impact ecosystems, but Humboldt squid can weigh over 45 kilograms, reach lengths of two meters and have voracious appetites, so they could easily trouble juvenile salmon critical to coastal British Columbia's economy, culture and environment.

Is climate change killing sea stars?

Sea stars on BC coast

Sea stars on the West Coast are dying with disturbing symptoms like limbs decaying into a jelly-like state. Credit: EarthFix via Flickr

Millions of sea stars off North America's West Coast have died during the past year. Although some thought climate change was causing "sea star wasting syndrome", recently published research points to a virus as the likely culprit. This virus has been around for years, so other environmental stressors may have worsened this particular outbreak. More research is needed to explore whether warmer, more acidic water encourages the virus to spread or inhibits sea stars' immune systems.

Climate change's evil twin: Ocean acidification

An estimated 30 per cent of carbon dioxide released from burning fossil fuels dissolves into ocean water, making it more acidic. Higher acidity can dissolve or impede shell development in creatures like oysters, scallops and shrimp.

Some oyster and scallop farmers on Canada's West Coast have felt the hard economic reality of ocean acidification, losing 80 to 90 per cent of their harvest. Juvenile shellfish couldn't build up the shells necessary to survive, which hurt more than the business' bottom line. Ten employees lost their jobs — just the tip of a melting iceberg if we don't reduce our carbon emissions.

What you can do to help

Oceans are vast. So, too, are the problems they face. It can be tough to navigate how you can help. So we've done the research for you, charting out straightforward steps to reduce our collective impact on ocean health:

1. Anything you can do to slow climate change will also help the oceans. Top 10 ways you can stop climate change.

2. Relieve other pressures on the ocean systems. Seven things you can do every day to protect our oceans.

If you care about ocean health, sign up to be a David Suzuki Foundation Ocean Keeper today at

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