Marine Atlas: Maximizing Benefits for Vanuatu


HOTTER AND HIGHER: MEAN SEA SURFACE TEMPERATURE AND PROJECTED SEA LEVEL RISE Sea surface temperature (SST) is a limiting factor for much marine life. Climate change is leading to higher sea temperatures, as well as sea levels, thus compromising Vanuatu’s marine values.

with a threshold temperature of 26.5°C being a trig- ger mechanism (see also chapter “Stormy times”). At the same time, tropical cyclones can also cause a cool wake, due to turbulent mixing of the upper 30 metres of the ocean. SST changes diurnally, like the air above it, but to a lesser degree due to its higher specific heat. There is less SST variation on windy days than on calm days. In addition, ocean currents can affect SST on multi-decadal timescales. Coastal SST can cause offshore winds to generate upwelling, which can significantly cool or warm nearby land masses, and additionally shallower waters over a continental shelf are often warmer. Onshore winds can cause a considerable warm-up even in areas where upwelling is fairly constant. The annual mean SST in Vanuatu’s waters ranges from 22°C in the south to nearly 30°C in the north, as the map shows. Across the year there is rela- tively little variation in the SST, with up to ±3.5°C in the south and less than ±2°C in the north. Vanuatu is strongly influenced by the North Vanuatu and South Vanuatu Jets, both of which bring warm water westward from the South Equatorial Current, which itself brings warm water from the eastern tropical Pacific Ocean. Sea level rise has the potential to negatively impact the low-lying coastal areas of Vanuatu, through flood- ing and wave inundation, with consequent shoreline Blame it on the weatherman? In February 2012, Vanuatu recorded its highest ever water temperature, 37.2°C in Lamap on Malekula. Such high temper- atures heat the water in shallow reefs to uncomfortable temperatures for many of the inhabitants. Was it just a few hot sunny days or global warming that warmed the water way above its average temperature? To understand this, we need to look at two different things. On one hand climate variability, which refers to shorter term (daily, seasonal, annual, inter-annual, several years) variations in climate, including the fluctuations associated with El Niño (dry) or La Niña (wet) events (see also chapter “Go with the flow”). On the other hand climate change, which refers to long-term (decades or longer) trends in climate averages such as the global warming that has been ob- served over the past century, and long-term changes in variability (e.g. in the frequency, severity and duration of extreme events) (see also chapter “Stormy times”). There may always be particularly rainy weather in Sola, or a particularly hot week in Lamap. Only by observing trends in the long term can we show how the climate is changing.

The following chapters explain how observed and predicted climate change will affect Vanua- tu’s marine values, starting with SST, which is the water temperature close to the ocean’s surface. The very hot temperatures in 2012 were not only uncomfortable for people, but for the ocean’s inhabitants too. Warm water holds less dissolved oxygen than cooler water and once the level of dissolved oxygen drops below a critical threshold, fish and invertebrates suffocate. This is especially bad in shallow-water habitats, which can rapidly heat up and lose dissolved oxygen, resulting in thousands of dead fish. Corals also find hot water uncomfortable. Shal- low-water corals grow optimally between 23°C and 29°C, hence they are confined to tropical regions of

the globe. When the water temperature falls outside this range, they can become stressed and expel their symbiotic algae (see also chapter “Home, sweet home”) in a process known as bleaching. Coral bleaching is an increasing threat to coral reefs in tropical regions and can have a negative impact on ecosystems, fisheries and tourism. An increase in SST of only 1°C for four weeks can trigger a bleach- ing event. When increased temperatures last for longer periods (eight weeks or more), corals begin to die. This shows how SST is an important factor in the distribution of ocean life, with many species confined to specific temperature ranges. Moreover, air masses in the Earth’s atmosphere are highly modified by SST. Warm SST is known to be a cause of tropical cyclones over the Earth’s oceans,




Vanuatu Provisional EEZ Boundary Boundary as deposited at UN Archipelagic Baseline

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Sources : Becker et al, 2009; Claus et al, 2016; NASA Goddard Space Flight Center, 2014; Smith and Sandwell, 1997. Copyright © MACBIO Map produced by GRID-Arendal







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