While scientists and policy makers have grappled for decades over the hot-button issue of global warming, a groundbreaking new study firmly establishes the fact that the earth is heating up as a result of worldwide industrialization.

The study, published in the April 28, 2005 issue of Science, is led by James Hansen, one of NASA’s top climatologists. Hansen and other researchers, using ocean data collected over a 10-year period, conclusively found that the warming trend of the ocean could not be attributed to natural variation. Rather, the oceanic warming they found fit in precisely with the expected effects of modern industrialization.

How does global warming affect the oceanic habitat and the plants and creatures that reside in the ocean? Coral reefs, which are very sensitive to even small temperature changes in the ocean, are nature’s barometer of oceanic warming. As a result of global warming, scientists have observed the massive bleaching of coral reefs around the globe.

The “bleaching” of coral reefs occurs when coral reefs are stressed by environmental factors and expel the tiny algae that live on them. The algae are important because they give the reefs their color and provide food for them. After a severe bleaching, coral reefs often die.

Coral reefs suffer bleaching as a result of many environmental factors, such as pollution and destructive fishing practices; however warming is perhaps the most important cause of the bleaching of coral reefs. As global warming continues, the bleaching and death of coral reefs around the world may become an unavoidable reality.

Another example of how sensitive ocean creatures are to climate change are phytoplankton, which are microscopic plants that live near the surface of the ocean and use sunlight to convert water and carbon dioxide into carbohydrates. Phytoplankton are important because they are the foundation of the marine food chain. When surface waters are too warm, this prevents the cooler nutrient-rich waters from swelling up to the surface where the phytoplankton live. If phytoplankton are not able to grow properly, it will disrupt the entire oceanic food chain.

While the ocean is able to absorb a great deal of heat without a large temperature change, we can see that the creatures that live in the ocean are greatly affected by even these minute temperature increases. So far, the ocean surface temperatures around the world have risen by an average of .9 degrees Fahrenheit. Scientists predict at least another degree of warming over the next 100 years – even without further greenhouse emissions. Warming could also occur much more quickly if protective policies are not implemented.

The best way to help prevent continued global warming is by adopting an earth-conscious lifestyle – the most important step being to move towards a vegetarian diet. Few people realize that one third of the earth’s fossil fuels are used to raise animals for food. Gradually eliminating flesh foods from our diet is the simplest way to help conserve energy and preserve the environment. For more tips on how you can help protect our oceans, check out the Make Everyday Earth Day and Health Tips sections of our website.