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date: 22 May 2024

Impacts of Climate Change on the Ecosystem of the Baltic Sealocked

Impacts of Climate Change on the Ecosystem of the Baltic Sealocked

  • Markku ViitasaloMarkku ViitasaloFinnish Environment Institute


Climate change influences the Baltic Sea ecosystem via its effects on oceanography and biogeochemistry. Sea surface temperature has been projected to increase by 2 to 4 °C until 2100 due to global warming; the changes will be more significant in the northern areas and less so in the south. The warming up will also diminish the annual sea ice cover by 57% to 71%, and ice season will be one to three months shorter than in the early 21st century, depending on latitude. A significant decrease in sea surface salinity has been projected because of an increase in rainfall and decrease of saline inflows into the Baltic Sea. The increasing surface flow has, in turn, been projected to increase leaching of nutrients from the soil to the watershed and eventually into the Baltic Sea. Also, acidification of the seawater and sea-level rise have been predicted.

Increasing seawater temperature speeds up metabolic processes and increases growth rates of many secondary producers. Species associated with sea ice, from salt brine microbes to seals, will suffer. Due to the specific salinity tolerances, species’ geographical ranges may shift by tens or hundreds of kilometres with decreasing salinity. A decrease in pH will slow down calcification of bivalve shells, and higher temperatures also alleviate establishment of non-indigenous species originating from more southern sea areas.

Many uncertainties still remain in predicting the couplings between atmosphere, oceanography and ecosystem. Especially projections of many oceanographic parameters, such as wind speeds and directions, the mean salinity level, and density stratification, are still ambiguous. Also, the effects of simultaneous changes in multiple environmental factors on species with variable preferences to temperature, salinity, and nutrient conditions are difficult to project. There is, however, enough evidence to claim that due to increasing runoff of nutrients from land and warming up of water, primary production and sedimentation of organic matter will increase; this will probably enhance anoxia and release of phosphorus from sediments. Such changes may keep the Baltic Sea in an eutrophicated state for a long time, unless strong measures to decrease nutrient runoff from land are taken.

Changes in the pelagic and benthic communities are anticipated. Benthic communities will change from marine to relatively more euryhaline communities and will suffer from hypoxic events. The projected temperature increase and salinity decline will contribute to maintain the pelagic ecosystem of the Central Baltic and the Gulf of Finland in a state dominated by cyanobacteria, flagellates, small-sized zooplankton and sprat, instead of diatoms, large marine copepods, herring, and cod.

Effects vary from area to area, however. In particular the Bothnian Sea, where hypoxia is less common and rivers carry a lot of dissolved organic carbon, primary production will probably not increase as much as in the other basins.

The coupled oceanography-biogeochemistry ecosystem models have greatly advanced our understanding of the effects of climate change on marine ecosystems. Also, studies on climate associated “regime shifts” and cascading effects from top predators to plankton have been fundamental for understanding of the response of the Baltic Sea ecosystem to anthropogenic and climatic stress. In the future, modeling efforts should be focusing on coupling of biogeochemical processes and lower trophic levels to the top predators. Also, fine resolution species distribution models should be developed and combined with 3-D modelling, to describe how the species and communities are responding to climate-induced changes in environmental variables.


  • Climate of the Baltic Sea Region

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