For the first time in human history, atmospheric carbon dioxide levels passed 400 parts per million (ppm) of carbon dioxide at the historic Mauna Loa Observatory in Hawaii. This is the same location where Scripps Institution of Oceanography researcher Charles David Keeling first established the “Keeling Curve,” a famous graph showing that atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations are increasing rapidly in the atmosphere. CO2 was around 280 ppm before the Industrial Revolution, when humans first began releasing large amounts of CO2 to the atmosphere by burning fossil fuels. On May 9, the reading was a startling 400.08 ppm for a 24-hour period. But without the help of the oceans, this number would already be much higher.
The oceans are heating up, and marine ecosystems are changing because of it. Long before climate scientists realized the extent of impacts from carbon dioxide emissions, ocean scientists were taking simple temperature readings. Now those readings are off the charts, showing an ocean thrown out of balance from human-caused climate change. Sea surface temperatures hit a 150 year high off the U.S. East Coast from Maine to North Carolina during 2012.
These abnormally high temperatures are fundamentally altering marine ecosystems, from the abundance of plankton to the movement of fish and whales. Many marine species have specific time periods for spawning, migration, and birthing based on temperature signals and availability of prey. Kevin Friedland, a scientist in NOAA’s Northeast Fisheries Science Center’s Ecosystem Assessment Program, said “Changes in ocean temperatures and the timing and strength of spring and fall plankton blooms could affect the biological clocks of many marine species, which spawn at specific times of the year based on environmental cues like water temperature.”
Last summer I had the amazing opportunity to be on board the U.S. Coast Guard Icebreaker Healy, in partnership with N.A.S.A.’s ICESCAPE mission to study the effects of ocean acidification on phytoplankton communities in the Arctic Ocean. We collected thousands of water samples and ice cores in the Chukchi and Beaufort Seas.
While in the northern reaches of the Chukchi Sea, we discovered large “blooms” of phytoplankton under the ice. It had previously been assumed that sea ice blocked the sunlight necessary for the growth of marine plants. But the ice acts like a greenhouse roof and magnifies the light under the ice, creating a perfect breeding ground for the microscopic creatures. Phytoplankton play an important role in the ocean, without which our world would be drastically different.
Phytoplankton take CO2 out of the water and release oxygen, almost as much as terrestrial plants do. The ecological consequences of the bloom are not yet fully understood, but because they are the base of the entire food chain in the oceans, this was a monumental discovery that will shape our understanding of the Arctic ecosystem in the coming years.
The Arctic is one of the last truly wild places on our planet, where walruses, polar bears, and seals out-number humans, and raised their heads in wonderment as we walked along the ice and trespassed into their domain. However, their undeveloped home is currently in grave danger. The sea ice that they depend on is rapidly disappearing as the Arctic is dramatically altered by global warming.
Some predictions are as grave as a seasonally ice-free Arctic by 2050. Drilling for oil in the Arctic presents its own host of problems, most dangerous of which is that there is no proven way to clean up spilled oil in icy conditions. An oil spill in the Arctic could be devastating to the phytoplankton and thereby disrupt the entire ecosystem. The full effects of such a catastrophe cannot be fully evaluated without better information about the ocean, and we should not be so hasty to drill until we have that basic understanding.
Unless we take drastic action to curb our emissions of CO2 and prevent drilling in the absence of basic science and preparedness, we may see not only an ice-free Arctic in our lifetimes, but also an Arctic ecosystem that is drastically altered.
Editor's note: This is a guest contribution by Oceana supporter Lauren Linzer, who lives on the Spanish island of Lanzarote, one of the Canary Islands, which are just off the west coast of Africa.
Along with many other nations around the world, Spain has been desperately searching for solutions to relieve the increasing financial woes the country is facing.
With a significant portion of its oil supply being imported and oil prices skyrocketing, attention to cutting down on this lofty expense has turned toward a tempting opportunity to drill for oil offshore in their own territory.
The large Spanish petrol firm, REPSOL, has declared an interest in surveying underwater land dangerously close to the Spanish Canary Islands of Lanzarote and Fuerteventura. This would, in theory, cut down significantly on spending for the struggling country, providing a desperately needed financial boost.
But are the grave ecological repercussions worth the investment? There is much debate around the world about this controversial subject; but on the island of Lanzarote, it is clear that this will not be a welcome move.
Last week, protesters from around the island gathered in the capital city of Arrecife to demonstrate their opposition to the exploration for underwater oil. With their faces painted black and picket signs in hand, an estimated 22,000 people (almost one fifth of the island’s population) walked from one side of the city to the other, chanting passionately and marching to the beat of drums that lead the pack. Late into the night, locals of all ages and occupations joined together to express their dire concerns.
Besides the massive eyesore that the site of the drilling will introduce off the east coast, the ripple effects to islanders will have a devastating impact. The most obvious industry that will take a serious hit will be tourism, which the island depends on heavily. Most of the large touristic destinations are on the eastern shore due to the year-round excellent weather and plethora of picturesque beaches. But with the introduction of REPSOL’s towers a mere 23 kilometers (14 miles) from the island’s most populated beaches, the natural purity and ambient tranquility that draws so many European travelers will be a thing of the past.
Editor's note: This post by Oceana CEO Andy Sharpless was originally posted last May on Politico.com. We think it couldn't be more relevant right now, especially considering that many media outlets are now making similar arguments to the one we've been making since last year - that gas prices aren't tied to offshore drilling.
Why do we take terrible risks to drill for oil in the Gulf of Mexico and elsewhere along our coasts?
Most people would say we drill to protect ourselves from big fluctuations in gasoline prices that are caused by major upheavals in the Middle East.
Their argument is that the more oil we can produce domestically, the lower the price we’ll pay at the pump. It’s not that they like the sight of oil wells off our beaches. The main reason they argue for more offshore oil drilling is they think it will save money — especially since gas prices approached $4 a gallon recently. (See: A chart of U.S. gas prices here.)
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.
I have a dramatic update for you on our campaign to stop offshore drilling in Belize.
As I reported to you several weeks ago, the government shockingly rejected 8,000 of the 20,000 signatures we collected against offshore drilling, citing poor penmanship as a primary reason.
The 20,000 signatures we collected should have been more than plenty to trigger a national referendum on offshore drilling, but since the government refused to comply, we held our own referendum last week – a people’s referendum.
And the results were astounding.
Nearly 30,000 registered Belizeans – that’s almost 20% of the country’s voting population – cast a ballot on the issue of offshore drilling. The results? 96% to 4% voted against offshore drilling. We think this is irrefutable evidence that the Belizean government needs to act responsibly, and either end plans to allow drilling in its reef, or allow a public referendum to determine the national policy.
Oceana is the leading voice in Belize against offshore drilling. Belize is home to the magnificent Belize Barrier Reef, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, which we simply cannot sacrifice for oil.
I’ll keep you posted as this important story continues to unfold.
Andy Sharpless is the CEO of Oceana.
If you watched this week’s State of the Union address, you may have heard President Obama announce that he was opening 75 percent of our “potential offshore oil and gas resources.”
The good news is that this isn’t news; it’s simply a reiteration of the administration’s current five-year drilling plan that fully protects the Atlantic and Pacific coasts, as well as much of the U.S. Arctic. The bad news, however, is that plan expands offshore drilling to include much more of the Gulf of Mexico than ever before – and worse yet, some of the Arctic. It’s as if the massive 2010 spill never happened.
In other good news, the President expressed his wish to reduce subsidies for oil companies. The oil companies receive about $10 billion a year in tax breaks, and the Obama administration has proposed cutting $4 billion.
I applaud the President’s commitment to reducing subsidies for the big oil companies, although I wish he would go further and eliminate them completely.
Unfortunately, the State of the Union address, as well as this week’s Republican primary debate in Florida, reiterated that our political leaders still fail to grasp a basic economic fact: that increasing our domestic supply of oil will not lower our prices at the gas pump.
Oil is a global commodity, and prices are set on a world market. Multinational companies who drill for oil – like Shell, B.P. and Exxon – will sell to the highest bidder. That may be the U.S. It may just as well be India or China.
As we learned during the 2010 Gulf of Mexico oil disaster, there’s more at stake. National Journal writer Beth Reinhard asked the right question at Monday’s Republican debate when she noted drilling in Florida will create at most 5,000 jobs, while an oil spill threatens the 1 million jobs that depend upon tourism, which contributes $40 billion each year to Florida’s economy.
That’s a high price to pay to help oil companies continue to make record profits. And yet Rick Santorum, on the receiving end of her question, reiterated his support for more domestic drilling.
Unfortunately, oil companies are powerful players in the election season. They dole out enormous contributions to the candidates, which may explain why we see misinformation on both sides of the political aisle.
Here at Oceana, we’ll stick to the facts. More offshore drilling won’t lower your price at the pump, and we’ll continue to fight to protect our beaches and seafood from dirty and dangerous drilling.
After the Gulf oil spill happened, people demanded numbers. They wanted to know animal mortality numbers and dollar signs to understand the worst environmental disaster in our nation’s history.
The problem is that the extent of this spill was so huge and so many animals and people were affected that it’s hard to quantify. But some recent numbers help show how widespread the impacts have been.
So far BP has set aside $20 billion for spill impacts, and it has just been released that they paid out $5 billion of that amount in damages to over 200,000 people in the last year, with an additional $1.5 billion going to cleanup and restoration.
Many more people are claiming damages, with a total of close to 1 million claims being processed from people in all 50 states and 36 different nations, with thousands more claims coming in each week.
How could a spill in the Gulf possibly affect over a million people in such far reaching places? The answer is that the Gulf of Mexico isn’t just an oil and gas depot, it is used for many activities besides drilling that employ thousands of people in fishing and tourism related jobs. As a result, the economic impacts of the spill have been felt around the world.
This is the fifth in a series of posts about this year’s Ocean Hero finalists.
Maria D’Orsogna is a physics and math professor in California, but in her spare time, she has been fighting offshore drilling in Italy, where she spent 10 years of her childhood. She has even earned the nickname “Erin Brockovich of Abruzzo” for her efforts to rally the public and officials to end drilling in the region.
Abruzzo, which may be familiar to you from Montepulciano d’Abruzzo wine (a bottle of which I have sitting at home), is a primarily agricultural region east of Rome. The Adriatic Sea is nearby, along with a marine reserve (Torre del Cerrano), a Coastal National Park (Parco Nazionale della Costa Teatina) and several regional reserves, such as Punta Aderci, where dolphins are often spotted.
Maria’s activism started in 2007, when she discovered that the oil company ENI planned to drill in the coastal town of Ortona, Abruzzo. The company would uproot century-old wineries to build a refinery and a 7km pipeline to the sea.
Maria reports that there was very little information about the industry’s drilling plans, nor analysis on what it could mean for the region’s agriculture or fishing industries. At the time, Italy had no laws regulating offshore drilling.
While fighting the onshore refinery, which was ultimately defeated, Maria said via e-mail, “the attack on the sea began. I had to get involved.”
Oceana was joined by longtime supporters Kate Walsh ("Private Practice" and "Grey's Anatomy") and Aaron Peirsol (gold medal-winning swimmer) in Washington, D.C. today to remember the one-year anniversary of the Gulf of Mexico oil spill. We were also joined by Patty Whitney, a Louisiana resident-turned-activist whose home was affected by last year's disaster.
Along with campaign director Jackie Savitz, and a slew of energetic volunteers, the group served to remind us that offshore drilling is never safe - and that an oil spill could happen anywhere. Check out this slideshow of images from today's event.