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 â€śKeeling Curve,â€ť 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 National Snow and Ice Data Center has announced that Arctic sea ice melted to its yearly minimum extent last Sunday, which was the smallest extent since measurements began in 1979 and a whopping 49% below the 1979 to 2000 average. With ice vanishing at rates that exceed even the most sophisticated computer models there is one guarantee, that itâ€™s going to shrink even more
We know Arctic sea ice will continue to shrink for two reasons. First, we are continuing to spew greenhouse gases into the atmosphere. And second, solar radiation and melting sea ice interact as a system known as a positive feedback loop. Sunlight that hits white arctic sea ice is largely reflected back to space. Throughout modern civilization Arctic sea ice has acted as a sort of thermostat, regulating the earthâ€™s temperature. But as the climate warms, and the Arctic ice melts, the sunlight instead hits much darker seawater. Rather than reflecting that energy back to space, open-ocean waters absorb vastly more of the sunâ€™s energy, which in turn warms the water, accelerating the rate of melt.
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.â€™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 â€śbloomsâ€ť 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.
Many of you have inquired via Twitter, Facebook and e-mail about how the Japanese nuclear crisis is affecting the oceans and marine life. There are still a lot of question marks, but hereâ€™s what our scientists have to say.
How it could affect marine life in general:
The greatest concern for marine life comes from the radiation from cesium, strontium and radioactive iodine entering the oceans via the smoke and water runoff from the damaged facilities. Small doses of radiation will be spread out over the Pacific Ocean, and monitors on the U.S. West Coast have even picked up slight traces of radiation from the smoke.
Although the levels of cesium and radioactive iodine in the immediate vicinity of the plant have increased and very small amounts of radiation have even been detected in local anchovies (1 percent of acceptable levels), it is not clear whether there will be any long-term or significant impacts on marine life off the coast of Japan or out to sea, according to researchers who studied the marine effects of fallout from nuclear weapons tests in the Pacific and the Chernobyl nuclear accident.
Today, the Senate stood up for our environment, clean air and scientific decision-making by beating back a resolution from Senator Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) that would have undercut the Environmental Protection Agencyâ€™s authority to regulate greenhouse gases.
As oil continues to gush into the Gulf of Mexico, this resolution would have given Big Oil free reign to continue polluting while tying EPAâ€™s hands from taking any action.
Oil isnâ€™t the only pollutant pouring into the oceans these days. Thereâ€™s another big one, only itâ€™s much more insidious and widespread: carbon dioxide.
Today Oceana board member and actor Sam Waterston will be on Capitol Hill urging Congress to take action to stop ocean acidification.
Last year, Congress passed the Federal Oceans Acidification Research and Monitoring Act, which created an ocean acidification program in the federal government. Waterston will call on Congress to fully fund and implement the program.