By Jennifer R. Nolan
What is more precious than gold?
The correct answer just might be seawater. Our oceans are rich in biodiversity, provide 50% percent of the oxygen we breathe and sustain billions of people with fish as their primary source of protein – it’s virtually priceless. The noble Dr. Sylvia Earle points out, “The ocean is our life support system.” And while it may be hard for anyone to comprehend that this exceptionally vast body of water, and its marine ecosystem, are in jeopardy, it is.
When you get to spend time at sea, and watch the sun set over an endless horizon, you can get a glimpse of liquid gold. © Jim Abernethy/jimabernethyimagery.com
Some still wonder if we’re actually capable of altering something so much larger than ourselves – but we are, and we have, and we’ve managed to do so in a remarkably short amount of time. If we keep in mind that life on Earth began 3.5 billion years ago, we start to recognize that humans, which arrived 500,000 years ago, are the new kids on the block, and responsible for a lot of destruction to the neighborhood over the past 150 years.
With major advances in marine sciences available since the 1980s, compelling data now reveals a “sea of science” proving that pollution in the form of carbon dioxide emissions delivers collateral damage to the planet. After nearly two centuries of carelessly emitting this pollution, ocean acidification is one of the outcomes. Elizabeth Kolbert, author of The Sixth Extinction, states, “Since the start of the Industrial Revolution, humans have burned enough fossil fuels – coal, oil, natural gas – to add 365 billion metric tons of carbon to the atmosphere…Each year, we throw up another nine billion tons or so.” Time has proven that what we dump into the atmosphere does not magically disappear – it basically comes back full circle.
While waiting for effective global environmental ethics and regulations to be instituted, the dumping of massive amounts of carbon dioxide (CO2) into Earth’s atmosphere continues. Severe weather patterns, drought, wildfires, flooding and melting icebergs continue to make headlines, but it’s perhaps our oceans that are taking the biggest hit – they absorb up to one-third of all CO2 emissions. Seawater is naturally alkaline, with a pH balance of 8.2, but due to excess carbon dioxide emissions, ocean acidity has increased by 30%, a spike in recent decades. From dead zones to oyster hatcheries collapsing and seashells dissolving (due to low pH levels), the ocean is maxed out.
What’s at risk? Everything.
Stanford ecologist Paul Ehrlich put it best when he said, “In pushing other species to extinction, humanity is busy sawing off the limb on which it perches.” If phytoplankton can’t survive in the acidic seawater we have created, we stand to lose 50% of our oxygen supply and the very foundation of the ocean’s food chain.
A Basic Fact
When atmospheric carbon dioxide levels go up, ocean pH levels go down. To elaborate on how ocean acidification occurs, imagine the following. When seawater (naturally alkaline) interacts with the CO2 molecule, it immediately forms carbonic acid by binding to the carbonate molecules. Why is this a problem? For two reasons: seawater becomes too acidic when pH levels drop, and those same carbonate molecules, that are essentially kidnapped by CO2, are then not available to the wide assortment of creatures that make shells and skeletons of calcium carbonate (coral, clams, snails, various plankton, etc.). The presence of carbonate molecules is essential for even the most microscopic, single-celled organisms that exist at the base of the food chain – pteropods, foraminifera and coccolithophorids, to list a few. If these microorganisms don’t thrive and survive, the entire marine ecosystem is at risk.
In an effort to recognize the importance of our oceans, an executive order was established in 2010 entitled: Stewardship of the Ocean, Our Coasts, and the Great Lakes. This led to the creation of the National Ocean Council, and recognized that: “The ocean, our coasts, and the Great Lakes provide jobs, food, energy resources, ecological services, recreation, and tourism opportunities, and play critical roles in our Nation’s transportation, economy, and trade, as well as the global mobility of our Armed Forces and the maintenance of international peace and security.” This was a strong movement forward in protecting our nation’s waterways, however, it can be said this was akin to finally installing smoke detectors, fire extinguishers and new safety protocol while others in the neighborhood are still allowed to play with matches around gasoline.
As the BP oil rig explosion in the Gulf of Mexico becomes a distant memory, our nation continues to debate the controversial expansion of offshore drilling and the Keystone pipeline. Even if we could access millions of barrels of oil without the threat of a spill, our strategy for the future can’t be a reliance on fossil fuels. We’ve spent our carbon allowance; the signs are now everywhere we turn. Scientists estimate that unless drastic measures are taken to curb carbon dioxide emissions, concentrations in the atmosphere could reach as high as 500 parts per million by 2050 – anything over 350 ppm is considered the danger zone, and we are currently at 400 ppm and climbing annually at a rate of 2 ppm. Due to these changes, extinction rates are soaring worldwide. A new film, Racing Extinction, by Oscar-winning director Louie Psihoyos, examines this time sensitive issue closely, getting to the heart of the problem (human activity), and offers solutions. Discovery channel will release the film this fall.
Your Actions Matter
The good news, there are many ways to tackle this carbon dioxide problem. Start by making your home more energy efficient with better insulation, efficient air conditioners, LED lights, solar panels, and energy audits. Change your transportation method by driving an electric car or hybrid, walk more, bike, carpool and use public transportation; you’ll be healthier and so will the planet. Taking action means signing petitions and voting for public officials that support environmental policies. Lastly, help spread the word that actions matter, ignite advocacy for the oceans and planet at large. What we do to the planet, we do to ourselves.
In Pete Seeger’s song, “The World’s Last Whale,” he sings, “Down in the Antarctic the harpoons wait, but it’s up on land you decide my fate.” Today, we’ve managed to create the most threatening “harpoon” of all – ocean acidification; it’s aimed at billions of microorganisms and countless species. But the irony, that same “harpoon” we now aim at ourselves. If we want to make peace with the planet, we surely know where to start.
Jennifer R. Nolan is an author, lecturer and Senior Partner of LegaSeas, a non-profit organization with a mission of inspiring people to help protect oceans. Her latest book, a collaboration with marine life photographer Jim Abernethy, is Sea Turtles Up Close.
This Sailors for the Sea Ocean Watch Essay is reprinted with permission. To learn more about Sailors for the Sea’s programs and how you can be the change you want to sea, visit sailorsforthesea.org.