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World's Oceans Changing Color, Study Says: Are Oregon / Washington Coast Next?

Published 08/04/23 at 5:21 a.m.
y Oregon Coast Beach Connection staff

World's Oceans Changing Color, Study Says: Are Oregon / Washington Coast Next?

(Newport, Oregon) – A recent study that included one researcher with connections to the Oregon coast is showing how the ocean's color has changed over the last 20 years, sometimes to quite a degree, and the likely culprit is human-induced climate change. (Photo NASA: A springtime plankton bloom is visible off the Frisian coast)

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The shifts are subtle around the globe, not always visible to the human eye. Yet 56% of the planet's ocean waters have experienced a change that, while subtle, cannot be explained by natural means over two decades.

The study recently came out in the journal Nature, and was compiled by scientists from the National Oceanography Center in the U.K., MIT and the University of Maine – along with oceanographer Kelly Bisson from Oregon State University (OSU). The Hatfield Marine Science Center on the Oregon coast is run by OSU.

Most notably, Earth's tropical oceans have moved to more of a green over this time. When an ocean area shifts colors, it's a consequence of the ecosystems contained therein changing. The color is a direct reflection of the organisms and materials in those areas.

Lead author B. B. Cael, of the National Oceanography Center, said this is yet another way humans are affecting the biosphere. He and Bisson looked at satellite data from the last 21 years, particularly the Aqua satellite which has been monitoring the world's oceans during that time. Using means to break down images by various wavelengths, they discovered a trend of colors drifting over those years.

Those differences aren't something humans can see. In fact, we see blues and variations of it, although the actual color – as seen by the lens – can contain a variety of subtler wavelengths. There are often greens and reds mixed in that humans won't notice.

This comes about because of phytoplankton and other elements, which reside higher up in the ocean layers, closer to the surface. Being the base of food chain in the ocean, phytoplankton are a key species in the underwater world and scientists have found more reasons to monitor them with this study.

Is this a change that's occurring on the Oregon coast or Washington coast?

Bisson told Oregon Coast Beach Connection it's likely, but it's more difficult to tell with this Pacific Northwest region.

“The Oregon Coastal ecosystem is likely experiencing climate change effects that adjust the ocean color, however the natural seasonal variation signal dominates (mathematically) over the climate change signal, so we cannot say for certain (yet) that the color is changing due to climate change in our 20 year analysis,” she said. “We do know that the climate change signal becomes statistically significant for complex coastal areas after a longer time, so in the next 5 or 10 it will likely be evident. Put another way, the climate changes impacts are there but we aren't able to statistically detect them until there's sufficient data relative to the natural conditions.”

The world's tropical oceans are displaying the changes, and that is serving as a warning for the rest of the world – and the Pacific Northwest waters.

“In a sense, our study's identification of largely tropical areas is akin to a 'canary in a coal mine' as these are places with low natural signal - so a robust climate change signal is detected sooner than in more complex regions.” BELOW: SATELLITE PHOTOS OF THE OREGON / WASHINGTON COAST

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Andre' GW Hagestedt is editor, owner and primary photographer / videographer of Oregon Coast Beach Connection, an online publication that sees over 1 million pageviews per month. He is also author of several books about the coast.

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