Blog Tags: Ocean Acidification
It’s no secret that the health of our oceans is under extreme threat.
With dangers like overfishing, climate change and ocean acidification, keeping our oceans healthy is a complex problem that has proved difficult to address.
Scientists and policymakers now have a little help, however, with the recent creation of the Ocean Health Index. Developed by a multidisciplinary team of researchers, the index provides an overall score for global ocean health, using 10 different social, economic and ecological criteria such as water quality, habitat, livelihoods, and coastal protection.
The research findings, published in the journal Nature last week, gave our oceans a collective score of 60 out of a possible 100 points. Scores were calculated for 133 different regions located around the world, with marine waters from some countries ranking as low as 36 while others as high as 86. The United States scored only a little higher than the global average, with 63 points. Disturbingly, only 5 percent of these regions scored above 70 points.
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.
Matt Huelsenbeck is a marine scientist at Oceana.
Oceana has teamed up with several top scientific institutions in creating a report called "Hot, Sour & Breathless – Ocean Under Stress" which has been released this week at the United Nations climate negotiations in Durban, South Africa.
The collaborative report explains how the oceans are becoming more acidic, warmer, and have less oxygen due to our current fossil fuel emissions. Although it’s hard to visualize the connection between a coal-fired power plant in the Midwest United States and a coral reef in Australia, everyone around the world is bound by widespread changes in the oceans triggered by carbon emissions.
The ocean’s chemistry and its physical properties are changing dramatically fast from the burning of fossil fuels, and when one of the world’s top marine scientists leaves her hard work in the lab to communicate this issue to the international community, pay attention -- it’s probably important. I’m talking about Dr. Carol Turley, senior scientist and executive board member of the European Project on Ocean Acidification (EPOCA), who will be at the climate conference in Durban.
She will be speaking at a side event entitled “Ocean Acidification: The Other Half of the CO2 Problem” which discusses how carbon dioxide emissions are making the oceans more acidic and posing threats to marine life, fisheries and livelihoods around the world.
Recently Dr. Turley received a prestigious award called the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to science granted by the Queen of England. Oceana, Dr. Turley and other leading marine scientists have been working to raise international awareness about ocean acidification and climate change threats to marine life and ocean resources during the last two climate negotiations, COP-15 and COP-16, and again this year.
The continued burning of fossil fuels poses serious threats to many creatures we know and love from plankton, corals, crabs and oysters all the way up to whales. Our report explains how there are big unknowns and massive risks with multiple stressors caused by emissions which could combine to completely alter many marine habitats and food webs.
As world leaders prepare for international climate change negotiations next week in Durban, South Africa, a new study out this week depicts the widespread threats that climate change presents for marine fisheries.
The bottom line? Emissions from the burning of fossil fuels are presenting very long-term if not irreversible threats for the oceans.
Economists and top fisheries scientists at the University of British Columbia published a paper on Sunday in the journal Nature Climate Change that outlines the many challenges fisheries face from climate change, and how this can impact the global economy and hundreds of millions of lives.
Global marine fisheries are underperforming, mainly from rampant overfishing, but climate change also creates several serious threats to the future productivity of fisheries. These chemical and physical changes linked to climate change such as decreased oxygen levels, changes in plankton communities and plant growth, altered ocean circulation and increased acidity can disrupt the basic functioning of marine ecosystems and thwart any potential recovery of global fish stocks.
The study outlines how impacts can scale up from changing ocean conditions to the global economy, but the authors note that the true scope of impacts to employment are hard to predict.
Guest blogger Jon Bowermaster is a writer and filmmaker. In this post, Jon reports from the Maldives on the effects of climate change -- and marine protection -- on the country's waters.
There are few places on the planet as remote as the Maldives. Landfall is a thousand miles away from much of the long string of 1,200 islands, most of which are little more than thin, uninhabited strips of sand. Diving into the heart of a Maldivian lagoon, it is easy to imagine you are alone in a distant paradise.
Yet when I did just that a few days ago, in the heart of the Baa Atoll — 463 square miles of aquamarine Indian Ocean recently named a UNESCO Biosphere Reserve — something didn’t feel, or look, quite like paradise.
The ocean, though jaw-droppingly beautiful, was a bathtub warm 86 degrees F. Diving to its shallow floor it was quickly clear that the realm below sea level here has been badly impacted in recent years by a combination of man and Mother Nature and resulting fast-warming temperatures.
The coral reefs of the Maldives were first badly damaged in 1998, when shifting ocean patterns associated with El Niño raised sea level temps above 90 degrees. The result then was that 70 to 90 percent of the reefs surrounding the Maldives 26 atolls were badly “bleached,” the warm temperatures killing off the symbiotic algae that lives within the coral and gives it color.
While since then many of the reefs have been recovering, according to a report by the Maldives-based Marine Research Center, another warming last year (2010) estimated that “10-15 percent of shallow reef coral is now completely white, while 50-70 percent has begun to pale.”
Oceana is an event partner for the American Wind Energy Association’s (AWEA) Offshore Wind Conference in Baltimore, MD next week, October 11-13.
I’ll be at the conference representing Oceana, and I’ll be speaking on a panel about stakeholder engagement, which will focus on how best to engage and educate key stakeholders in the offshore wind development process.
Why is Oceana such a strong advocate for offshore wind, anyway? Here are a few big reasons:
- Because we have seen the damage that drilling for and burning fossil fuels can do to the health of the oceans and marine life, and we must find a better way to satisfy our energy needs.
- Because windmills harness a clean and infinite source of energy, while eliminating the risk of deadly oil spills and creating three times as many jobs as the oil industry.
- Because we believe that the environmentally safe and responsible development of offshore wind is one of the best chances we have as a country to end our addiction to fossil fuels and to finally stop the dangerous practice of oil and gas drilling in our oceans.
- Because we believe that, if sited correctly, offshore wind could be the ocean-based part of the solution to climate change and its "evil twin," ocean acidification.
- Because Oceana is in a unique position as both a stakeholder in the process and an advocate for offshore wind to the stakeholders/decision-makers in Congress, where we engage and educate congressional staff on the benefits of offshore wind. We collaborate with other environmental organizations and the offshore wind industry to advocate for legislative policies that help promote the development of offshore wind.
At last year’s conference, Secretary of the Interior Ken Salazar signed the first U.S. lease for offshore wind development, and since then, he and Secretary of Energy Steven Chu unveiled a National Offshore Wind Strategy. The plan includes the deployment of 10 gigawatts of offshore wind capacity by 2020 and 54 gigawatts by 2030, and Salazar and Chu announced $50.5 million in funding opportunities for projects that support offshore wind energy deployment.
In other words, it’s an exciting time in the world of offshore wind – and we’re thrilled to be a part of the action.
You can help, too! Tell your senators to replace dirty oil drills with clean windmills.
Nancy Sopko is an Ocean Advocate at Oceana.
This is part of a series of ocean infographics by artist Don Foley. These infographics also appear in Oceana board member Ted Danson’s book, “Oceana: Our Endangered Oceans and What We Can Do to Save Them.”
Coral reefs cover around 1 percent of the world’s continental shelves, yet they provide habitat and food to at least a quarter of all species in the oceans, including 4,000 species of fish. These diverse habitats also provide food, income and coastal protection for some 500 million people.
But coral reefs and the species that rely on them are increasingly threatened by an invisible menace: ocean acidification. Thanks to human-produced carbon dioxide emissions, the oceans are now 30 percent more acidic than they were prior to the industrial revolution and more acidic than at any point over the past 20 million years. Corals and other species are unlikely to be able to adapt to this rapid change in acidity and are likely to suffer severe decline.
Coral reefs are built by tiny, soft coral animals, or polyps. These polyps are relatives of jellyfish and have evolved to secrete calcium carbonate skeletons that provide the polyp with structure and protection.
Colonies of hundreds to thousands of polyps live together as corals and can build huge reef structures over many years. Not only are coral reefs some of the most diverse habitats on Earth, but they are also some of the oldest. Corals grow only millimeters to centimeters per year, and it can take tens to hundreds of thousands of years for large reefs to form.
You can help protect coral reefs by telling your Senators to reduce carbon emissions and stop ocean acidification.
Guest blogger Jon Bowermaster is a writer and filmmaker. In this post, Jon reports on the dangers of ocean acidification.
Of all the threats to the planet’s ocean, none may be more insidious or have longer-term impact than ocean acidification. It is also the least understood of all the potential harms.
Admittedly it is far easier to visualize plastic afloat on the surface of the Pacific or vast tracts of the Atlantic nearly devoid of fish than a chemical imbalance. But it is the change of acidity that may already be the ocean’s worst enemy.
Try this for a visualization, maybe it will help: 24 million tons of carbon dioxide created by the burning of fossil fuels – or the equivalent of 24 million Volkswagens – are dumped into the world’s ocean every single day.
On top of destroying coral reefs (the equivalent of wiping out rain forests on land) and killing off shellfish beds including mussels and oysters, a new report out of the U.K. suggests that the so-called “evil twin” of global warming is responsible for some fish losing their sense of smell and hearing.
It makes sense that ocean acidification is bad for marine life. But who knew it could have far-reaching effects on human health as well?
A new report by scientists at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (WHOI) shows that ocean acidification is threatening global food security by hindering the growth of clam, oyster, and other mollusk populations – staples in many nations’ diets.
Without healthy and reliable mollusk populations, countries may be forced to switch to aquaculture. Countries like Haiti, Senegal, and Madagascar, however, lack the ability to make this switch and are thus especially vulnerable to the impacts of mollusk shortages. And of course, problems like this never exist in a vacuum; even developed countries such as the U.S. will feel the effects via a potential drop in GDP.
Unfortunately, this isn’t just a theoretical problem – the deleterious effects can already be seen in both ecosystems and economic realms alike. In Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, scientists have observed that coral growth has slowed, and Pacific Northwest oyster farms have already experienced declining economic yields. Further effects, which will no doubt be broader in scope, will probably be seen in 10 to 50 years if we do not make a concerted effort to halt ocean acidification.
This is the eleventh in a series of posts about this year’s Ocean Hero finalists.
Today’s featured junior ocean hero finalist is 12-year-old Dylan Vecchione, who was nominated for his commitment to coral reef conservation.
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