Why the Indian Ocean?

By Heather Dugmore and Professor Peter Burkill, Co-Chair of the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition (IIOE-2) Steering Committee and Past President of the Scientific Committee on Oceanic Research (SCOR), Emeritus Professor, University of Plymouth, UK.

The Indian Ocean remains the least known of all the global oceans, and the least scientifically studied. A strong contributing factor for this is that from the 1990s, the global economic recession resulted in the West turning its back on the Indian Ocean due to the cost of operating in far waters, and the resurgence of piracy in the region.

In the last few years, however, this has changed, as the West begins to realise the impact that this ocean has on the world’s marine and the terrestrial environment.

The monsoons

The Indian Ocean is bounded in the north by countries that include Somalia, Oman, Pakistan, Bangladesh, India and Indonesia, a region of monsoonal weather systems. Because of this there is huge upwelling of deep nutrient-rich water in the ocean during the monsoon months of June, July and August, only subsiding when the winds die down in September. This seasonal upwelling enhances the productivity of the surface waters of the ocean, and species such as migratory tuna are attracted to the area, while residents such as squid grow profusely due to the abundance of food.

One of the questions that scientists are grappling with is whether the pattern of monsoons is changing. To monitor this, data is collected over the northern Indian Ocean basins using satellites and oceanographic moorings and fed into climate models to establish changes.

Indian Ocean is warming faster

Research reveals that the surface waters of the Indian Ocean south of the equator seem to be warming faster than in any other ocean region. The regional warming pattern in the Indian Ocean is globally significant as it accounts for a large proportion of the heat assimilated by the ocean as a whole. This effect may be a crucial aspect of the ocean’s role in global climate regulation. It will also have profound local effects. These include a rise in sea levels, flooding or even submerging coastal land, severe damage to coral reefs — and the effects may even extend to widespread changes in rainfall patterns.

Tipping point

The best scientific research, data and prediction models are needed if countries are to manage the impact of climate change and to avoid reaching an environmental “tipping point”, beyond which it may be impossible to recover.

Sea levels are already rising at a rate of 30 to 40cm per century, with predictions that this will increase significantly in the future. About 500 million people live on land that will be submerged or exposed to chronic flooding by 2100. This will affect all low-lying countries bordering the Indian Ocean, with the Maldives, Seychelles and Bangladesh most at risk: the Maldives could be submerged within the next two decades.

The Indian Ocean is surrounded by countries in which artisanal fisheries are of significant importance for income and food, yet we know little about the impact of ocean warming and marine pollution on this critical coastal community resource. Tourism is another resource of great importance to the Indian Ocean countries. And coral reefs, a vital asset to both fishing and tourism, are bleaching and dying as a result of ocean warming.

Blue economy rapid development

Responsible stewardship of ocean resources for the blue economy depends critically on knowing what resources are where and what governs their sustainability. Since 1957, SCOR see: https://scor-int.org/ — the Scientific Committee on Ocean Research — has been bringing together ocean scientists from all parts of the world to advance our understanding of the ocean.

SCOR sponsors the Second International Indian Ocean Expedition programme together with UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organisation’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic and the Indian Ocean Global Ocean Observing System.

Such collaborations are essential to working out what can be done for the environment and who should be doing it. Despite what President Trump may think, human-driven climate change is a reality.

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