Warmer Oceans Are Breeding More Harmful Bacteria
Dangerous bacteria spreading in warming oceans
Vibrios bacteria can cause food poisoning, gastroenteritis, septicemia and cholera
The Associated Press, Sept. 13, 2011
BRUSSELS — Warning: The warming of the world's oceans can cause serious illness and may cost millions of euros (dollars) in health care.
That is the alarm sounded in a paper released online Tuesday on the eve of a two-day conference in Brussels.
The 200-page paper is a synthesis of the findings of more than 100 projects funded by the European Union since 1998. It was produced by Project CLAMER, a collaboration of 17 European marine institutes.
The paper says the rising temperature of ocean water is causing a proliferation of the Vibrio genus of bacteria, which can cause food poisoning, serious gastroenteritis, septicemia and cholera.
"Millions of euros in health costs may result from human consumption of contaminated seafood, ingestion of waterborne pathogens, and, to a lesser degree, though direct occupational or recreational exposure to marine disease," says the paper. "Climatic conditions are playing an increasingly important role in the transmission of these diseases."
The paper also describes a host of other effects of ocean warming, both documented and forecast, including melting ice, rising sea levels, coastal erosion, increased storm intensity and frequency, along with chemical changes in the sea itself, including acidification and deoxygenation.
"What was striking to me was the enormous pile of evidence that things are already happening," Katja Philippart, a marine scientist at the Royal Netherlands Institute of Sea Research who was involved in putting the study together, told The Associated Press. "There is so much happening already. We are just in the midst of it."
It is not only the range of changes that has scientists concerned, but the speed of them.
"The biggest surprise to me is the fact that things are changing in the ocean much more rapidly than we thought was possible," said Carlo Heip, who is director of the same institute in the Netherlands.
In just a few decades, he said, the fish population of the North Sea has changed significantly, with larger species moving toward the arctic and smaller ones taking their place.
He said the concentration of Vibrio genus of bacteria has been observed since the 1960s. "When the temperature in the North Sea began to increase at the end of the 80s, the Vibrios began to increase. One of those Vibrios is the cholera species."
In the Baltic region in 2006, far more people got gastroenteritis than usual, Heip said. But he acknowledged that is anecdotal evidence only, and the extent of the danger is unclear.
Philippart said some of the effects could even themselves contribute to global warming.
The greater acidification of the ocean might mean that algae would be able to capture less carbon dioxide, she said. "Then there will be a further increase in carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, leading to greater warming."
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