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Mapping the Sea's Natural Defense Against Climate Change

Location intelligence is helping scientists understand how to protect an important marine ally in combating global warming.

The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) recently released a report that presents a more dire picture of the immediate effects of climate change than previously believed.

And while leaders often first point to managing economies and slowing the output of pollution, it is sometimes ignored that the earth's ecosystems can self-correct. With the proper data and insight, scientists can be better equipped to foster natural buffers against climate change that already exist in our own wilderness—even in our oceans.

Massive tracts of tree canopy are touted as absorbers of carbon dioxide, but they aren't the only natural defense against man-made pollution. The ocean's modest yet prolific flora plays an even greater role. Bottom-attached sea grasses occur in shallow coasts around the world. These unassuming marine plants store up to 100 times more carbon dioxide compared to tropical forests. Despite their importance, traveling to every shallow part of the ocean to check for their habitats is simply unfeasible. Sea grasses like eelgrass are also, ironically, under threat by factors related to the very thing they may serve as a defense against—climate change. But what if a data-driven model of sea grass health could be built to better protect it?

The challenge of facing global warming in the coming years must be a multitiered approach—one that includes reducing pollution, adapting to the effects of a changing climate, and using the earth's own defense mechanisms to our benefit. To do that, we must first have data on how they function and how we might be affecting them. As part of this task, an organization called Citizen Science GIS, in concert with the Smithsonian Institution, has begun a project to map and analyze eelgrass in coastal waters all the way from San Diego up to Alaska.

Continue reading article in the November/December issue for ECO magazine by following this link.

Words by Dawn J. Wright, Esri Chief Scientist

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