» A starving ocean: Upwelling systems under climate change and the threat to global food security
07.06.2018 - Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission

A starving ocean: Upwelling systems under climate change and the threat to global food security

© Instituto Geofísico del Perú - Dr. Ivonne Montes

In the second article of our series on women scientists’ perspectives on emerging ocean science issues, Dr Ivonne Montes (Peru) tackles the issue of global food security as climate change endangers our ocean’s most productive areas.

Dr. Ivonne Montes, Researcher at the Instituto Geofísico del Perú, is currently attending the 4th International Symposium on the Effects of Climate Change on the World’s Oceans, ECCWO (Washington D.C., USA, 4-8 June) – a major gathering of leading researchers from more than 50 countries who are sharing the latest science concerning climate change impacts on ocean ecosystems. She will co-convene a thematic session looking at the specific impacts of climate change on upwelling systems, habitats to some of the most commercially important fish species in the world.

This series of interviews invites you to dive into the Symposium’s major topics, through the eyes of women that have dedicated their lives to ocean science. Their insights offer us a warning about just how much is at stake when it comes to the conservation and sustainable use of the ocean in a changing climate, but they also highlight how the scientific community can play a significant role in bridging the gap between knowledge and action.

Thanks to a growing body of science, exciting innovations and discoveries, we now have a greater understanding of our planet’s climate system – but how do we turn decision-relevant knowledge into concrete steps toward delivering the ocean we need for the future we want? We asked Dr Montes to explain why this is crucial to decision-makers and society at large.

How would you explain upwelling systems and their importance to a politician or even your local councilor?

Upwelling systems are like hidden forests: they have a high abundance of ocean plants that supply huge amounts of food for fishery production (the most important fisheries worldwide are located in these areas). These ocean plants are also responsible for producing a huge part of the oxygen we breathe via photosynthesis. More than 60% of the oxygen we breathe is produced by ocean plants!

This is only possible due to environmental conditions. For example, some features in wind patterns bring nutrients from the bottom to the surface of the ocean, maintaining equilibrium in climate and weather patterns in highly populated regions. Finally, these systems are very important for human sustainable development as well as sustainable development of nations.

But these hidden forests are at huge risk from ocean “dead” or “oxygen minimum” zones – huge areas where oxygen is very low or non-existent. Microbial processes in these areas release a lot of Greenhouse and Nitrogen gases (key players in climate change), making the ocean more anemic and less productive. This loss is akin to the deforestation of the Amazon.

Can we predict the impacts of climate change on these systems? If no, what is missing? If yes, what do we know?

Well, depending on the system that we refer to (Humboldt, California, Canarias, Benguela are the major ones), I think we can try to predict some changes and in particular linear feedbacks. However, considering that response to changes is not linear and that a wide range of spatial and temporal variability is involved, more multidisciplinary studies need to be conducted. Indeed integrating observations, models and different disciplines is crucial.

How do scientists collaborate to study these cross-border upwelling systems? Is it enough? Do we need more collaboration to fill knowledge gaps?

Personally I think that efforts are very little or non-existent. Several expert groups exist but they are unfortunately made up of the same scientists, and there is not enough work to integrate local scientists or scientists from different regions. On the other hand, local scientists are focused on responding to the needs of their own country, where they are sometimes completely isolated due to the lack of communication with the international world of science. In short, I think we need projects that contribute at both national and international levels and also ensure capacity building.

Are deregulated upwelling systems a real threat to global food security? How big of a threat?

It is definitely a subject, but we need more scientific evidence to be able to identify and measure the precise threats. Otherwise, we risk going into pure speculation.

Is there anything citizens can do in their everyday lives to help?

We, humans, should be more respectful of what is given to us. We should also keep abreast of what is happening and/or demand information from local governments if there isn’t any – that can provide an extra motivation for politicians and encourage debate on these topics.


UNESCO’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission (IOC) has co-organized this quadrennial international symposium since 2008 in collaboration with the International Council for the Exploration of the Sea (ICES), the North Pacific Marine Science Organization (PICES), and the Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations (FAO).

Follow all ECCWO news on Twitter at @ECCWO!

For more information, please contact:

Salvatore Arico (s.arico(at)unesco.org)

Ivonne Montes (ivonne.montes(at)gmail.com)

Or visit:

ECCWO Symposium website

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