A sobering new report warns that the oceans face a "fundamental and irreversible ecological transformation" not seen in millions of years as greenhouse gases and climate change already have affected temperature, acidity, sea and oxygen levels, the food chain and possibly major currents that could alter global weather.
The report, in Science magazine, brings together dozens of studies that collectively paint a dismal picture of deteriorating ocean health.
"This is further evidence we are well on our way to the next great extinction event," said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, the director of the Global Change Institute at the University of Queensland in Australia and a co-author of the report.
John Bruno, an associate professor of marine sciences at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and the report's other co-author, isn't quite as alarmist, but he's equally concerned.
"We are becoming increasingly certain that the world's marine ecosystems are reaching tipping points," Bruno said, adding, "We really have no power or model to foresee" the impact.
The oceans, which cover 71 percent of the Earth's surface, have played a dominant role in regulating the planet's climate. However, even as the understanding of what's happening to terrestrial ecosystems as a result of climate change has grown, studies of marine ecosystems have lagged, the report says. The oceans are acting as a heat sink for rising temperatures and have absorbed about one-third of the carbon dioxide produced by human activities.