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Rising ocean temps increase risk of infectious disease for humans, marine life

Media Contact

Gillian Smith

A major new United Nations report, issued on Wednesday, warns that the Earth’s oceans are under severe strain from climate change, threatening everything from the ability to harvest seafood to the well-being of hundreds of millions of people living along the coasts. Cornell University experts are available to discuss impacts of increasing ocean temperatures and the importance of ocean conservation.


Drew Harvell

Professor of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Drew Harvell, professor of ecology and evolutionary biology who researches the sustainability of marine ecosystems, says ocean ecosystems are at risk of developing infectious diseases as temperatures rise. Her recently released book, Ocean Outbreak, offers insight into the dynamics of infectious disasters.

Harvell says:

“The report emphasizes the enormous danger of increased warming and in particular heat waves, like the one currently impacting the Pacific Ocean. We work on infectious diseases that are fueled or made worse by warming and heat waves. I am very concerned that the current heat wave will fuel two current outbreaks we work on: the epidemic affecting west coast starfish and the epidemic affecting an essential marine habitat, eelgrass.

“One detail that did not get much emphasis in the new report is the danger of increasing infectious disease with warming in the ocean. The authors did correctly call out the danger to humans, given increases in bacterial infections with ocean warming, but there is an entire ocean biodiversity that is also at increased risk of infections as warming continues. In particular, scientists know that the following plants and animals are affected by diseases that increase with warming: lobsters, corals, seagrasses, sea stars, and urchins. There are even more cases where we do not know yet how sensitive a disease is to warming. The challenge this poses is that these can be very difficult to detect and confirm under the waves.”

John Tobin

Professor of practice at the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management

John Tobin, professor of environmental, energy and resource economics policy, says warming oceans have a direct economic impact on humans whose livelihoods depend on a healthy ocean.

Tobin says:

“Arguments to protect the oceans have often been couched in terms of the importance of preserving the diversity of life and the beauty of our seascapes. But the latest IPCC report highlights the fact that conserving the oceans is not only about protecting life, but also about protecting livelihoods.

“Tens of millions of people across the planet make a living from fisheries, including both large-scale industrial fisheries as well as small artisanal fisheries that are crucial to people in countless coastal communities. And as many as three billion people are estimated to rely on fish as their primary source of protein.

“Mismanaging our oceans not only makes no sense from an environmental point of view, it makes no sense from the point of view of hard-nosed economics.”


Cornell University has television, ISDN and dedicated Skype/Google+ Hangout studios available for media interviews.