Climate Migration is Happening Underwater, Too

Graphic by Annabel Driussi for ODP

by Ashira Morris, ODP Staff Writer

The ocean is warming, and marine life is moving to survive. Tropical waters around the equator were the richest with species, but it’s now too hot for some of them to survive, according to a new study. Looking at 48,661 marine species, the study found marine life drops off when average annual sea surface temperatures reach above 20 °C. Since the 1970s, fish, crustaceans, and other marine life that live in open waters have been migrating north — the research suggests “it is already too warm there for some species to survive.”

Why This Matters: The ocean has taken in about 20 times as much heat as the atmosphere since 1960, and the migration of marine life is one of the many impacts from this absorption. These shifts will impact what people living in coastal communities around the equator can fish for and eat. They will “put the livelihoods of our tropical-island neighbours at risk, both in terms of seafood resources and tourism attractions,” co-author David Schoeman, USC Australia Professor of Global-Change Ecology, told Forbes.

This impact is one of the many imbalances between the source of climate-damaging emissions and where they have an outsize impact. 


A world on the move: It’s not just fish and marine life — half of all the world’s species are migrating to survive human-caused climate change. 

As the planet warms, species are shifting where, when, and how they thrive. They are moving up slopes and toward the poles. That is already altering what people can eat; sparking new disease risks; upending key industries; and changing how entire cultures use the land and sea,” National Geographic wrote in 2017.  

Ecosystems are complex webs, and with so many species moving at once, it’s difficult to predict exactly what new order will emerge. On land, species are migrating an average of 10 miles every decade, but marine species are moving four times as far in the same time span.  

Human society has yet to appreciate the implications of unprecedented species redistribution for life on Earth, including for human lives,” wrote Gretta Pecl, whose 2017 study in Science looked at the impact of climate change on biodiversity and human well-being. “Meeting these challenges requires governance that can anticipate and adapt to changing conditions, as well as minimize negative consequences.”

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