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Sea Level Rise, Ocean Warming Is Accelerating According To U.N. Report


United Nations has released a sweeping new report on the state of the world's oceans and ice. The oceans are getting hotter. They're doing so faster. Ice is melting, driving accelerated sea level rise, and manmade climate change is causing it. NPR's Rebecca Hersher has more.

REBECCA HERSHER, BYLINE: The new report wraps up what the scientists of the world know about climate change's effects on oceans and ice. Ko Barnett (ph) is the vice chair of the panel that produced the report and, flanked by top climate scientists, she announced its contents to a packed room in Monaco this morning.


KO BARRETT: I find this report to be unprecedented in the sense that it provides this complete picture of changes to water on the planet.

HERSHER: That picture is sobering. For one thing, the oceans are changing faster than they used to. Sea surface temperatures have been steadily rising since 1970, but the rate of warming has doubled since the 1990s. That's because the ocean has absorbed more than 90% of the extra heat that's trapped in our atmosphere by greenhouse gases.


BARRETT: The ocean has been acting like a sponge, absorbing carbon dioxide and heat to regulate the temperature, but it can't keep up.

HERSHER: Glaciers and ice sheets are also melting faster and faster as the Earth gets hotter. That means less reliable sources of drinking water and faster sea level rise. And in a first, this report analyzes studies that link individual weather events to climate change. Such studies are relatively new and have connected extreme rainfall from hurricanes to abnormally warm ocean water.

And then there are the animals. As humans pump greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, the oceans are getting more acidic. Add that to hotter water, and it's threatening fish that millions of people rely on.

Tommy Moore is the oceanographer for the Northwest Indian Fisheries Commission, which supports tribes in Washington state. He says, in recent years, repeated heat waves off the coast there have damaged salmon and crab stocks.

TOMMY MOORE: I know it is a concern because it's tough to maintain a fishery when - and maintaining your way of life when it becomes increasingly uncertain.

HERSHER: A way of life because in addition to economic benefits, many native communities are culturally tied to specific marine animals. Worldwide, indigenous communities are disproportionately affected by climate change. Moore says a side effect of being intimately involved in the ocean is that tribes have a lot of knowledge to offer scientists and policymakers.

MOORE: The fishermen are - you know, they've been out there working these areas for generations, and they see changes that scientists wouldn't see.

HERSHER: Today's report stresses the importance of that knowledge as countries adapt to warming oceans because while eliminating greenhouse gas emissions immediately would help lessen the impacts on the oceans in the long term, there is no way out in the short term. The oceans will keep getting hotter and higher, and it will require dramatic, sometimes painful, changes to how people live along the world's coasts.

Rebecca Hersher, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rebecca Hersher (she/her) is a reporter on NPR's Science Desk, where she reports on outbreaks, natural disasters, and environmental and health research. Since coming to NPR in 2011, she has covered the Ebola outbreak in West Africa, embedded with the Afghan army after the American combat mission ended, and reported on floods and hurricanes in the U.S. She's also reported on research about puppies. Before her work on the Science Desk, she was a producer for NPR's Weekend All Things Considered in Los Angeles.