Australian estuaries are warming twice as fast as the oceans

  Last updated April 20, 2020 at 12:15 pm


The rate of warming isn’t just disastrous for the marine and bird life, but also the millions of people who depend on the estuaries for their livelihoods. 

estuaries warming_lakes_rivers

Myall Lakes north of Sydney were part of the 12-year study. Credit: NSW DPIE

Why This Matters: It’s not just oceans and the atmosphere that are affected by global warming.

Estuaries on the southeast coast of Australia are warming at twice the rate of oceans and the atmosphere, according to a new study.

The findings are based on more than 6200 temperature observations taken over 12 years in 166 rivers, lakes and lagoons along the entire 1100-kilometre coastline of the state of New South Wales.

On average, the estuary systems experienced a total temperature increase of 2.16 degrees Celsius – about 0.2 degrees each year.

Also: The last ice age tells us why we should care about 2°C temperature changes

“This increase in temperature is an order of magnitude faster than predicted by global ocean and atmospheric models,” says Elliot Scanes from the University of Sydney. Scanes led the research which has been published in the journal Nature Communications.

Estuaries are particularly vulnerable to warming

The data, which are publicly available, were collected by field officers of the NSW Department of Planning, Industry and the Environment.

The researchers say previous studies have found evidence of warming on specific lake and river systems – such as along the North Sea, in Germany, and in the Hudson River and Chesapeake Bay in the US – but theirs is the first long-term study to consider a diverse range of estuary types on such a large scale.

“Our research shows that estuaries are particularly vulnerable to a warming environment,” says Scanes.

Also: Current global warming is unprecedented in the last 2000 years

“This is a concern not only for the marine and bird life that rely on them but the millions of people who depend on rivers, lakes and lagoons for their livelihoods around the world.”

Pauline Ross, who oversaw the research at the University of Sydney, notes that the rates of change observed in the study also “may jeopardise the viability of coastal vegetation such as mangroves and saltmarsh in the coming decades and reduce their capacity to mitigate storm damage and sea-level rise”.

Air and ocean temperatures alone cannot be relied on

According to the Australian Bureau of Meteorology, air and sea temperatures in Australia have increased by about one degree since 1910. Over the past decade, air temperatures have increase 1.5 degrees as compared to the 1961 to 1990 average.

“Our results highlight that air or ocean temperatures alone cannot be relied upon to estimate climate change in estuaries; rather, individual traits of any estuary need to be considered in the context of regional climate trends,” Scanes says.

The study found that acidification of estuaries was increasing by 0.09 pH units a year. There were also changes to the salinity of estuary systems: creeks and lagoons became less saline while river salinity increased.

Temperature increases in estuaries were also dependent on the type, or morphology of the system.

“Lagoons and rivers increased in temperature faster than creeks and lakes because they are shallower with more limited ocean exchange,” Ross says.

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About the Author

Natalie Parletta
Natalie Parletta is an Australian freelance science writer.

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