Photo Nick Green

Code Blue: Climate Change is Ocean Change

The ocean. The big blue beating heart of our planet. As Australians, it is core to our very being. We paddle on it, camp by it, swim and dive in it. Every day we are awed by its beauty, soothed by its rhythms, nourished by its bounty.


For the millions of us who surf it, the ocean is a deep source of joy, of adventure, and of mental solace in these challenging and uncertain times. Perhaps no other activity connects us more intimately with the rhythms of our natural world. Surfing is embedded in the intricate and timeless dance between the ocean, land and atmosphere, in the exchange of energy between wind and waves, and in the sacred balance of our Earth System.


But as more and more surfers are recognising, those rhythms are changing. Through our relentless burning of fossil fuels, we have pushed things out of balance, threatening not only the activity we love but all life as we know it.

Photo Nick Green

When thinking about climate change, not many people immediately think of the ocean. Least of all how rising global temperatures may impact their favourite surf break. Our minds are more likely to turn to heatwaves, fires and floods. But in reality, the ocean is at the very heart of the climate change story. In a very real sense, climate change is ocean change. Indeed, focussing on the ocean is a great way to get to grips with our climate crisis: why things are changing so rapidly, the impacts of these changes, and perhaps most importantly, the solutions.

We can think of the ocean as the engine of the global climate system. All life depends on the water cycle that starts in the ocean, powered by the energy of the sun. The ocean’s currents distribute heat and moisture around the planet, creating the stable climate and weather patterns that have enabled human societies to flourish. We need the ocean in other fundamental ways too: more than half of the oxygen we breath is produced from the ocean.

Each year, through the burning of coal, oil and gas, we’ve been releasing billions of tonnes of carbon from long-term storage deep in the Earth’s crust into the atmosphere, thickening up the blanket of greenhouse gases that surrounds our planet, and trapping more heat from the sun. The vast majority of that extra heat – over 90 percent – has been absorbed by the ocean. It is a staggering among of energy – equivalent to detonating five Hiroshima atomic bombs a second, or enough energy to boil all the water in Sydney Harbour every eight minutes.

Needless to say, such a profound shift in the Earth’s carbon cycle and energy balance is going to have consequences. Today, we are no longer talking about future threats but dramatic changes playing out in real time. Ice sheets are melting, causing seas to rise at an accelerating rate and posing an existential challenge for atoll nations and low-lying communities worldwide. Species are on the move, threatening the food and economic security of coastal communities. The future of critical ecosystems – including our precious Great Barrier Reef – hangs in the balance. The currents that distribute heat, moisture, carbon and nutrients around the planet are slowing and may be heading for collapse.

Photo Nick Green

For the surfing community, these changes also threaten the thing we so cherish and that keeps us happy. Rising seas and coastal erosion threaten some of our most treasured breaks. A southward migration of Irukandji jellyfish and other tropical species may bring whole new risks for surfers. The run off following extreme downpours can leave coastal waters dangerously polluted for days.

Put simply, the crisis facing our climate and oceans is a profound and escalating threat to the people, the places and the lifestyle we love.

The science is unequivocal. To protect our climate and ocean, and all life that depends on it we simply must leave our fossil fuels in the ground and get Australia and the world’s emissions plummeting this decade.

But there is another side to this story too. Our precious ocean is not merely a victim of our excesses, but a vital ally in the fight against climate change. For example, marine ecosystems including mangroves and coastal wetlands are remarkably efficient at storing carbon. It is estimated that mangroves and coastal wetlands absorb carbon at a rate two to four times greater than mature tropical rainforests. They also protect coastal communities from storm surges and erosion. In a recent survey of eminent climate and ocean scientists around the world, the Climate Council was told that restoring these carbon-rich marine ecosystems was the second most important measure to protect our oceans, after rapidly phasing out fossil fuels.

In short, we need to protect the ocean, so that it can keep protecting us. That’s why Patagonia is campaigning for the full protection of 30 percent of our seas by 2030 – a goal shared by the Climate Council.

For thousands of generations, First Nations in Australia and around the world have been protecting Sea Country, using sophisticated local knowledge and practices to sustainably manage marine environments. Protecting our ocean starts with listening to First Nations, and following the leadership of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.

Photo Nick Green

Last month I was up on a northern section of the Great Barrier Reef on a trip to launch the Climate Council’s latest report – Code Blue: Our ocean in crisis. We saw patches of vibrant, healthy reef, but also vast tracts that have never recovered from successive mass bleaching events brought on by intensifying marine heatwaves. It was powerful reminder of what we are losing, but also what we can and must fight to save. More than half a billion people worldwide depend on coral reefs for their food and the protection of their coasts. The loss of these critical ecosystems would reverberate throughout our ocean and food system in ways that are hard to fathom.

When it comes to protecting our oceans and securing a safe and liveable climate, failure is not an option. We are the only planet known to support life. The ocean is the root of that life. Ignore the crisis facing our climate and ocean, and we will watch our very life support system unravel. Fortunately, we have the solutions. It is not too late. But the window is narrowing fast. Every square kilometre of ocean that we protect, every tonne of carbon we leave in the ground, is a little investment in a brighter and safer future for our ocean and all life that depends on it, including our own.

Call on the Australian government to restore protection to the Coral Sea Marine Park, fully protect 30 per cent of Australia’s ocean by 2030 and prioritise First Nations stewardship of Sea Country. Sign the petition here.

Dr Simon Bradshaw is the head of research at the Climate Council.

Photo Nick Green

Photo Nick Green


"I recently discovered Roaring Journals... wild, cool people doing wild, cool things."

Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories
Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories Related Stories