Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Coral reefs are one part of the marine ecosystem threatened by warming oceans. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Flamingos and other wading birds perch in swamps, which could be flooded as a result of sea level rise. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Flamingos and other wading birds perch in swamps, which could be flooded as a result of sea level rise. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Warmer beaches could alter the male to female ratio of sea turtles in the oceans, threatening their population. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
Warmer beaches could alter the male to female ratio of sea turtles in the oceans, threatening their population. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
A group of children on a field trip view splashing penguins, which may soon have to migrate further north to feed their population. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
A group of children on a field trip view splashing penguins, which may soon have to migrate further north to feed their population. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
A talk-back station invites aquarium visitors to share their feelings and ideas about global warming. Photo by Devika Agarwal.
A talk-back station invites aquarium visitors to share their feelings and ideas about global warming. Photo by Devika Agarwal.

As swarms of tropical fish dart in and out of porous corals, vibrant colors pop against the paler branches of the reef. Children gaze in awe, their hands and noses pressed to the glass, eyes following each animal’s every move.

Visitors to the Monterey Bay Aquarium may not realize that the ocean home of marine life — from spotted jellies gliding effortlessly through the water to delicate flamingos tip-toeing through salty marshes — could soon be a very different place.

With the exhibit “Hot Pink Flamingos: Stories of Hope in a Changing Sea,” which tells the stories of species all around the world affected by global warming, the aquarium hopes to inspire awareness of climate change.

Global warming, or the warming of the Earth’s atmosphere due to increasing levels of greenhouse gases, has been a topic of intense worldwide debate for the past several years. Despite detractors, there is a scientific consensus that the planet’s climate has begun to warm and will continue to do so in the future due to increasing levels of carbon emissions.

“Climate change is a very sobering topic,” Raul Nava, an Assistant Exhibit Developer for “Hot Pink Flamingos,” said. “What we want visitors to understand is that we are all trying to wrap our heads around climate change. But we have found that there is hope. There is power in numbers.”

The Phenomenon

Climate variation is nothing new. Greenhouse gases such as carbon dioxide have always been a part of the atmosphere. However, since the 18th century industrial revolution, human consumption of fossil fuels has led to rising carbon dioxide emissions. Scientists fear this will lead to a rapid increase in the Earth’s atmospheric temperature.

Just ask Director of the Institute of Marine Sciences Gary Griggs, a distinguished professor of earth and planetary sciences at UC Santa Cruz.

“Right now, globally, we are about 85 percent dependent on fossil fuels,” Griggs said. “In the next hour [around the world], we’re going to burn about 150 million gallons of oil, 15 billion cubic feet of natural gas, and about a million tons of coal. Cumulatively, those are going to put, per hour, about a million tons of carbon dioxide into the ocean.”

Mark Snyder, assistant project earth scientist at the Climate Change and Impacts Laboratory at UCSC, uses climate modeling to predict the future temperature and greenhouse gas levels in the Earth’s atmosphere. Snyder and other researchers use scenarios established by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), a group of 3,000 scientists that last released a report in 2007, to calibrate future temperature and carbon dioxide levels.

“Right now, we’re essentially on one of the more extreme scenario curves, in terms of the rate of CO2,” Snyder said. “The sort of rapid climate change that people have looked at could definitely be happening as a result of this rate.”

According to the IPCC, global temperatures could rise between 2 and 11.5 degrees Fahrenheit by 2100, leading to a sea level rise of anywhere between .6 and 2 feet, as ice caps melt. UCSC professors and Monterey Bay Aquarium researcher’s estimates are less conservative. Such scenarios could put many parts of Santa Cruz under water.

There are still many unknowns about how climate change will affect oceans, but the Monterey Bay Aquarium is raising awareness of the changing seas.

Changing Seas

“Hot Pink Flamingos” is tucked away on the bottom level of the aquarium. Upon entering, viewers are drawn to hundreds of fish, in all colors of the rainbow, whizzing from side to side in the “Acid Oceans” exhibit. The fish aren’t literally swimming in acid, but in the future, marine ecosystems dependant on coral reefs could be threatened by changes in ocean pH.

“The ocean is becoming more acidic, which affects the coral reefs and all the animals that depend on the reefs,” said Angela Hains, public relations senior associate manager at the aquarium.

Acidic water affects the ocean’s levels of calcium carbonate, which many organisms use to build shells.

“Certain types of plankton that make calcium carbonate shells are going to dissolve,” Professor Griggs said.

Corals and plankton may not be the most fierce, colorful, or interesting animals in the aquarium, but both are vital to the food web that feeds larger marine animals and even humans. The larger aquarium is also home to sea otters and black-tipped reef sharks.

“Even if [some] animals are not affected by ocean acidification or warming, the loss or the change in abundance of some other species they depend upon can affect them indirectly,” Jim Barry, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute (MBARI) said.

Beyond “Acid Oceans” lies a tank of spotted jellies in shades of translucent brown, dotted with white spots — some have tentacles tangled in webs, while others drift, solitary, through the center of the tank.

Jellyfish are especially sensitive to the temperature of their environment.

“Warmer temperatures threaten some tropical spotted jellies and sea turtles, species who live at the edge of their temperature limits,” Assistant Exhibit Developer Nava said.

Sea turtles have temperature-dependent sex determination, which means that the temperature at which their eggs are incubated determines the turtle’s sex — warmer eggs become females, while cooler ones become male. Warmer oceans could lead to warmer beaches, which could alter turtle sex ratios and lead to a decline in population.

“Scientists are concerned that we may tip the balance for them,” Nava said. “Some beaches are already on the edge and produce more females than males.”

Past the jellies are two turtles gliding by the glass, their dark eyes looking out at the children staring back at them. Though an Earth 100 years into the future may seem distant for humans, it’s all in a turtle’s lifetime.

Flamingos — perhaps the most flamboyant of all birds in the marine ecosystem — face equal challenges.

All over the world, rising sea levels could force wading birds to move inland to marshes that are disappearing quickly.

Nava emphasized that although many birds can fly and migrate to different areas, the question is whether there will be enough wetlands left.

“We know that they can move and survive in different environments, but will there be other birds there doing the same thing?” Nava said.

Hitting Home

“Hot Pink Flamingos” features species from all of the world’s oceans that are facing the effects of global warming, and the local Monterey Bay may be facing many of the same changes.

According to the Bay Conservation Development Commission, if sea levels rise by three feet, the entire San Francisco International Airport, which currently sits within 16 inches of sea level, could be covered within the next 100 years. In Santa Cruz, the Boardwalk, Main Beach, parts of the harbor, and even downtown, which is built on a flood plain, could be inundated by the rising tide.

“If we keep going at the rate we’ve seen for the last 50 years, sea level would rise about one foot in the next 100 years, but most people are predicting that in the next 100 years, it’s going to go up a lot faster,” Professor Griggs said.

Ocean acidification, warming, and species migration northwards could also change the bay’s unique ecosystem.

Stories of Action

Despite the feelings of hopelessness that climate change can bring, “Hot Pink Flamingos” focuses on stories of hope and inspiration.

“A lot of times, people are overwhelmed on this subject. Our message is that it’s OK to feel worried, it’s OK to feel hopeful, and, most importantly, you’re not the only one,” Nava said.

The exhibit features “talk back points” throughout, stations at which visitors can share their feelings on climate change or their ideas. Dispersed between species are stations where visitors can post note cards sharing their personal stories or use a touch screen to share their emotions, whether hopeful or helpless.

Visitors can see examples of cities around the world that are cutting their carbon footprints through innovative public transportation systems and religious groups that are working toward creating a better planet for children by using solar energy or growing gardens.

Erin Loury, a CSU graduate student from the Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, was visiting the exhibit while planning a trip for teachers who would then incorporate climate change education into their curricula.

“It’s really great that people are getting to see animals they may have heard about but maybe not seen,” Loury said. “They have to care about something before they can care if it disappears.”

Why Hope?

If ocean species are on the path to disappearance, why try?

According to Nava, marine ecosystems have a vast potential for adaptability.

“Life is resilient,” Nava said. “Nature is very capable of adaptation — we know that. We can bounce back. The question is whether we are going to have enough time.”

This isn’t the first time that oceans, and Earth in general, have experienced climate change. But because of human activity and emissions, the rate of change is faster than in previous periods.

“In the past, we’ve seen changes in ocean temperature and chemistry. Those changes happened over millions of years. The difference is that [now] these changes are happening over hundreds of years,” Nava said.

Nava explained that although many scientists think there could be a point at which change is irreversible, that doesn’t mean giving up now.

Jim Barry, a senior scientist at MBARI, stated that despite evidence of changes already happening in the Monterey Bay, people should take action in any way to reduce their energy use and emissions.

“You sort of think about global warming as an on-off switch,” Barry said. “[But] it’s not global warming or no global warming — it’s how much global warming, and the more we do to conserve energy, to use alternative energy … the less warming we will see, and the slower warming will occur, so we will give ecosystems a better chance.”

At the end of the exhibit, visitors are asked to commit to do one thing in order to combat climate change — examples included bringing a reusable bag to the grocery store or skipping a hamburger to reduce methane emissions.

Visitors are rewarded with a video of their photo transposed onto a person carrying out their pledge.

One option is simply to talk about what they learned from the aquarium, an idea that Nava says encapsulates the goal of the exhibit.

“It’s a success to me if someone walks out of here and understands that their actions ripple out,” he said. “That’s the biggest thing anyone can take from this exhibit.”