"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

Posts Tagged ‘Ocean Dead Zones’

Sea Change: The Ecological Disaster That Nobody Sees

In Uncategorized on September 28, 2014 at 10:31 pm

Sea Change: The Ecological Disaster That Nobody SeesOldspeak: “The ocean is alive; it is a living minestrone soup with an even greater diversity of life than on the land, It is where most of our oxygen is created and carbon is taken out of the atmosphere. With every breath you take, you need to thank the ocean… .The ocean drives climate and weather, It is a planetary life-support system that we have taken for granted . . . We simply must protect the machinery, the natural systems upon which our life depends.” –Sylvia Earle, former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chief scientist.

Experts warn that we are currently facing an extinction event in the oceans which may rival the “Great Death” of the Permian age 250 million years ago, when 95 percent of marine species died out due to a combination of warming, acidification, loss of oxygen and habitat – all conditions that are rife today…. Within the past half century the oceans have been transformed from the planet’s most productive bioregion into arguably its most abused and critically endangered…. Trillions of microscopic ocean plants called phytoplankton contribute seasonally between 50 to 85 percent of the oxygen in earth’s atmosphere, far more than all of the world’s forests combined. Nobody knows for certain how plankton will adapt to warming seas. But one study published in the United Kingdom last year suggested, worryingly, that changes in the temperature and chemical composition of the oceans would make these critical organisms less productive. Planktonremoves carbon from the atmosphere during the process of photosynthesis. Fewer plankton will mean less oxygen and more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which will further intensify “a vicious cycle of climate change…Equally scary is the prospect that, as some researchers speculate, changes in ocean temperature may melt a frozen form of methane called “clathrates,” which is ubiquitous under the planet’s continental shelves. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times as potent in the short term as carbon dioxide. If these vast reserves bubble up into the atmosphere, it will truly be “game over” for the climate as we know it… But up to now, there has been little political will to tackle the tough issues that are leading to a death by a thousand cuts for the seas around us. The Global Ocean Commission reports that the toothless international treaties that purport to regulate human use of the oceans have failed utterly to protect them.” -Richard Schiffmann

“So basically, we’re running out of air. As time passes and conditions worsen, our air supply will steadily lessen, as greenhouse gasses further intensify. Our oceans in less than 50 years have been transformed from our planets most productive bioregion, into its most abused and critically endangered. Our oceans are the true lungs of the ecology. And they are boiling, acidifying, and dying. This cannot be stopped by human actions. While our attention is being directed toward manufactured threats like ISIS, Russia, and Ebola, We’re slowly and surely suffocating our way to extinction. Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick, Tick……” -OSJ

By Richard Schiffmann @ Truthout:

On September 21, in what is being advance-billed as the largest climate march in history, thousands of protesters will converge on New York City to focus public attention on the slow-motion train wreck of global warming. But while Americans are becoming increasingly aware that our industrial civilization is destabilizing the earth’s climate, fewer know about another environmental disaster-in-the-making: the crisis of the global oceans.

Experts warn that we are currently facing an extinction event in the oceans which may rival the “Great Death” of the Permian age 250 million years ago, when 95 percent of marine species died out due to a combination of warming, acidification, loss of oxygen and habitat – all conditions that are rife today.

Within the past half century the oceans have been transformed from the planet’s most productive bioregion into arguably its most abused and critically endangered. That is the conclusion of a report issued earlier this summer by the Global Ocean Commission, a private think tank consisting of marine scientists, diplomats and business people, which makes policy recommendations to governments.

The report catalogues a grim laundry list of environmental ills. Commercial fish stocks worldwide are being overexploited and are close to collapse; coral reefs are dying due to ocean acidification – and may be gone by midcentury; vast dead zones are proliferating in the Baltic and the Gulf of Mexico caused by an influx of nitrogen and phosphorous from petroleum-based fertilizers; non-biodegradable plastic trash – everything from tiny micro-plastic beads to plastic bags and discarded fishing gear – is choking many coastal nurseries where fish spawn; and increased oil and gas drilling in deep waters is spewing pollution and posing the risk of catastrophic spills like the Deepwater Horizon disaster which dumped an estimated 4.2 million barrels of petroleum into the Gulf of Mexico during a five-month period in 2010.

Yet these worrying trends have failed to spark public indignation. It may be a matter of “out of sight, out of mind.”

“If fish were trees, and we saw them being clear-cut, we would be upset,” renowned oceanographer Carl Safina observed in an interview with Truthout. “But the ocean is invisible to most people, an alien world.” It is hard for those of us who only see ocean life when it ends up on our dinner plates to get worked up about its destruction, Safina said.

Nevertheless, this world under the waves is vital to our survival, according to Sylvia Earle, former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) chief scientist. “The ocean is alive; it is a living minestrone soup with an even greater diversity of life than on the land,” Earle told Truthout. “It is where most of our oxygen is created and carbon is taken out of the atmosphere. With every breath you take, you need to thank the ocean.”

Trillions of microscopic ocean plants called phytoplankton contribute seasonally between 50 to 85 percent of the oxygen in earth’s atmosphere, far more than all of the world’s forests combined. Nobody knows for certain how plankton will adapt to warming seas. But one study published in the United Kingdom last year suggested, worryingly, that changes in the temperature and chemical composition of the oceans would make these critical organisms less productive. Planktonremoves carbon from the atmosphere during the process of photosynthesis. Fewer plankton will mean less oxygen and more of the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, which will further intensify “a vicious cycle of climate change,” according to the study’s authors.

Equally scary is the prospect that, as some researchers speculate, changes in ocean temperature may melt a frozen form of methane called “clathrates,” which is ubiquitous under the planet’s continental shelves. Methane is a greenhouse gas that is 20 times as potent in the short term as carbon dioxide. If these vast reserves bubble up into the atmosphere, it will truly be “game over” for the climate as we know it.

“The ocean drives climate and weather,” Earle said. “It is a planetary life-support system that we have taken for granted . . . We simply must protect the machinery, the natural systems upon which our life depends.”

But up to now, there has been little political will to tackle the tough issues that are leading to a death by a thousand cuts for the seas around us. The Global Ocean Commission reports that the toothless international treaties that purport to regulate human use of the oceans have failed utterly to protect them.

In an email to Truthout, former UK Foreign Minister David Miliband, a co-chair of the commission, wrote bluntly that the high seas are “a failed state . . . beyond the jurisdiction of any government, where governance and policing are effectively non-existent and anarchy rules the waves.” Miliband insists that the open ocean beyond national boundaries needs to be brought under the rule of international law. At present, global treaties make nonbinding recommendations, which are routinely violated by nations and commercial enterprises.

Perhaps not surprisingly, it is the wealthy countries that are disproportionally to blame for the ocean’s woes. According to the commission, the freedom of the seas is being “exploited by those with the money and ability to do so, with little sense of responsibility or social justice.”

One way this is happening is the chronic over-harvesting of the high seas by massive, technologically advanced ships largely from countries like France, Spain, Denmark, Japan and South Korea (the United States is actually a relatively minor player with a lower yearly catch than many far smaller countries). These floating factories frequently employ highly destructive methods like bottom trawling,the practice of dragging a heavy net on the bottom of the ocean, a process which can destroy ancient deep sea coral colonies and other fragile ecosystems.

Other questionable practices include fishing out of season and the use of cyanide and underwater explosives that stun or kill all marine life over vast swaths of the sea. Indiscriminate trawl nets and long-line fishing take untold thousands of sea birds, turtles, marine mammals and non-target fish species (called bycatch) daily, according to Earle. “It is like using a bulldozer to catch songbirds. You simply throw away the trees and all the rest.”

The results have been catastrophic. In 1950, less than 1 percent of fish species were overexploited or close to collapse. Today, that number has swollen to 87 percent, according to the Global Ocean Commission report. Not only are there “too many boats trying to catch too few fish,” but this overfishing is being abetted in many cases by government fossil fuel subsidies, which have driven an otherwise flagging industry into dangerous overdrive.

The irony is that, while the productivity of commercial fishing has never been lower, and boats need to go ever farther to catch fewer fish, the number of vessels exploiting the ocean has never been higher. While affluent countries spend tens of millions of their tax dollars to prop up their national fishing industries, coastal fisheries in the global south are being depleted and some fisher folk are barely able to survive on their diminished catches, as I discovered during a recent reporting trip to Barbados. They simply can’t compete with the big commercial fleets that are operating with impunity just beyond their territorial boundaries.

This problem is exacerbated in Barbados and elsewhere in the Caribbean by the rapid coral die-off. Instead of the thriving reefs that one would have seen only a few years back, there are now ghost forests of bleached white skeletons covered in slime. As the greenhouse gas carbon dioxide increasingly gets absorbed by the ocean’s surface waters, it creates carbonic acid, which changes the pH of the sea, making it more difficult for coral polyps and other shell-forming organisms to produce their rigid homes.

When corals die (Earle said fully half of the world’s reefs are already gone, or in steep decline) the fish and other organisms that breed among them die off as well. Equally important, reefs are an invaluable line of defense against storm surges and destructive waves. Without these natural seawalls, beach erosion and damage to low-lying coastal areas during hurricanes can spiral out of control.

Human-made physical changes to the world’s coastlines pose another threat. Productive natural hatcheries like mangrove swamps, mudflats and salt marshes are being cleared in many areas to make way for coastal development, barrier islands are dredged to build ship channels, and freshwater streams, which fish use to spawn, are blocked by dams.

In his eloquent book Running Silver, marine biologist John Waldman writes that in East Coast streams, where our forebears could “walk dry-shod on the backs” of schools of striped bass, shad, sturgeon and other fish during their spring migrations, today’s runs are as low as 2 percent of what they once were. In some cases, they’ve disappeared entirely. Cold-loving fish like salmon and cod are leaving their traditional ranges and heading toward the poles in search of cooler waters.

Amid this rising tide of bad news, however, there are some glimmers of hope. Carl Safina told Truthout that the US coastal fish populations were in free fall “until about 1998 when the Sustainable Fisheries Act went into effect [which sets strict fishing quotas]. We saw a recovery of inshore species which are wholly managed by US law and policy, at the same time as there was a continuing decline of the big offshore species like shark, tuna and many billfish in international waters.”

The challenge, as Safina sees it, is to bring the rule of law that has worked for some US fisheries to the high seas, which he calls “the Wild West in the space age.” We need something like a UN peacekeeper force for the open oceans, he said, to enforce treaties, clamp down on illegal fishing and draft strict environmental regulations.As a model for what he has in mind, Safina points to regional multination fishery boards (like those which already manage and set quotas for fisheries shared by the United States and Canada.) As this kind of international cooperation spreads, we’ll have a fighting chance to save imperiled species that are currently being fished to exhaustion. Safina alsosaid we need to stop fishing some critical areas to give them an opportunity to recover.

President Obama was clearly thinking along these lines when he announced in June the creation of the largest marine sanctuary on earth, a no-fishing and drilling zone comprising 782,000 square miles of open ocean surrounding small, unpopulated US territories in the South Pacific. Pacific island nations like the Cook and Kiribati quickly followed suit, banning fishing in their own territorial waters.

Sylvia Earle told Truthout that these are big steps in the right direction: “Here’s the good news: places where fish are protected, where we stop the killing, if enough resilience is there, these systems can be returned to abundance. It’s happened in the Florida Keys; it’s happened in protected areas off the coast of Chile, in Mexico, where grouper, snapper and sharks are making a reappearance.”

Still, until we address climate change and pollution, and find a way to establish justice and accountability on the high seas, the prospects for the world’s largest ecosystem remain grim.

 

 

 

 

The Pacific Ocean Has Become Acidic Enough to Dissolve Sea Snails’ Shells: Acidification Is Happening Sooner & On A Larger Scale Than Scientists Predicted; Coastal Biomes Under Threat

In Uncategorized on May 5, 2014 at 11:28 am

First evidence of marine snails from the natural environment along the U.S. West Coast with signs that shells are dissolving. (Credit: NOAA)Oldspeak: “A new study, among the first to examine how the process called ocean acidification impacts marine life, has confirmed that about half of all the pteropods off the west coast are fighting off the acid burn. It builds on previous work that has shown pteropods dissolving in other waters; it’s a disturbing trend, considering they’re a key link in the oceanic food chain….research determined that “large portions of the shelf waters are corrosive to pteropods in the natural environment…This is worrisome, not just because it’s kind of horrifying on a micro-level—imagine the air that surrounds you slowly eroding, say, your cartilage—but because these sea snails are a major food source for other important species like salmon, herring, and mackerel. Their disappearance would radically transform the coastal biome.” -Brian Merchant

It’s happening now. I’m not speculating about the distant future. The first crack in our global life support system is widening now and we are about to experience our first major systems failure….We are on the threshold of the first major eco-system collapse of the Homocene…What the great majority of people do not understand is this: unless we stop the degradation of our oceans, marine ecological systems will begin collapsing and when enough of them fail, the oceans will die… And if the oceans die, then civilization collapses and we all die… It’s as simple as that.”  -Captain Paul Watson

“It really is that simple. The degradation of our oceans is not stopping, it is in fact accelerating. The Pacific Ocean will continue to be transformed into a radioactive acid bath. Marine ecological systems will continue to collapse, and that will be that.  We’re fucked. There is no fixing this. There is no avoiding extinction.” -OSJ

 

Related Story:

NOAA-led researchers discover ocean acidity is dissolving shells of tiny snails off the U.S. West Coast

 

By Brian Merchant @ Vice Magazine:

Meet the tiny, translucent “sea butterfly,” whose home is currently being transformed into an acid bath. Off the US’s west coast, there are anywhere between 100 and 15,000 of these free-swimming sea snails per square meter. And the oceans are beginning to dissolve the tiny shells right off their backs.

A new study, among the first to examine how the process called ocean acidification impacts marine life, has confirmed that about half of all the pteropods off the west coast are fighting off the acid burn. It builds on previous work that has shown pteropods dissolving in other waters; it’s a disturbing trend, considering they’re a key link in the oceanic food chain.

The world’s oceans have absorbed a third of humans’ carbon emissions, a process that increases their acidity. Scientists have long noted the changing chemistry of the waters, and voiced concern that this leaves calcium-based creatures, like coral and pteropods, extremely vulnerable. Now, it appears, they have proof.

“These are some of the first insights into how marine creatures are affected by acidification,” Dr. Nina Bednarsek told me in a phone interview. She’s the lead author of the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration study, which was just published in the Proceedings of the Royal Society BThe research determined that “large portions of the shelf waters are corrosive to pteropods in the natural environment.”

“Fifty percent of those pteropods are affected by acidification,” Bednarsek said. “It’s a lot—more than we expected.” And sooner. She tells me that acidification is happening sooner and on a larger scale than scientists predicted. “This is just an indication of how much we are changing the natural environment,” she said.

The study estimates “that the incidence of severe pteropod shell dissolution owing to anthropogenic [ocean acidification] has doubled in near shore habitats since pre-industrial conditions across this region and is on track to triple by 2050.” In other words, thanks to human carbon pollution, twice as many marine creature shells are dissolving as were before the industrial era. And three times as many will be dissolving by mid-century.

Image: NOAA

This is worrisome, not just because it’s kind of horrifying on a micro-level—imagine the air that surrounds you slowly eroding, say, your cartilage—but because these sea snails are a major food source for other important species like salmon, herring, and mackerel. Their disappearance would radically transform the coastal biome.

Acidification primarily effects the snails’ outer shell layer, and is especially dangerous to juveniles, which are born with very tiny shells. The outer shell, which is comprised of “a more soluble form, they are just dissolved away. In that sense, shells are getting more thin,” Bednarsek said. “It is just a few micron in juveniles. If you dissolve that, the whole shell can just disappear in two months time.”

This means they have to use precious energy to try to build shells with less soluble materials, while the absence of a shell restricts mobility and leave them vulnerable to infection. So is this an existential threat to a highly prevalent species?

“Yes, basically,” Bednarsek said.

“By 2100, 50 percent of the oceans would no longer be viable for pteropods,” Dr. Richard Freely, the study’s co-author, told me, if we continue emitting carbon pollution apace. And that’s exactly what’s expected to happen.

“Estimates of future carbon dioxide levels, based on business as usual emission scenarios, indicate that by the end of this century the surface waters of the ocean could be nearly 150 percent more acidic, resulting in a pH that the oceans haven’t experienced for more than 20 million years,” NOAA estimates.

In other words, the oceans are on track to become an acidic mess, and plenty of things that lived in them for millions of years may simply no longer be able to. The future, it seems, is a place where sea snails’ shells begin dissolving in acid as soon as they’re born. And then, eventually, a place without sea snails.