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Posts Tagged ‘Ocean Protection’

SETH SHULMAN for Grist, part of the Guardian U.K., August 23, 2010

The ocean has been our savior.

Besides generating about two thirds of the oxygen we breathe, oceangoing phytoplankton — those floating microscopic plants that form the base of the aquatic food chain — absorb about a third of all the carbon dioxide we pump into the atmosphere. In this way, the oceans have managed to slow the buildup of heat-trapping greenhouse gases and stave off even more dramatic warming of the planet.

But John Guinotte and colleagues are discovering that the critical role of “carbon sink” comes at a potentially devastating cost for the world’s oceans: acidification.

Guinotte is a coral specialist at the Marine Conservation Biology Institute in Bellevue, Wash. The changes he sees in ocean chemistry spell trouble for the coral that he studies closely. If the acidification process continues on its current trajectory, it poses a dire threat to the whole marine ecosystem.

“What I’m really concerned about with ocean acidification is that we are facing the prospect of a crash in marine food webs.” says Guinotte. “There is no question that many of my colleagues in marine science are scared about what is happening. We know we need a more precise understanding of the changes and biological responses now under way — and we need it as quickly as possible, before it is too late to turn things around.”

Guinotte has dedicated his life to the study of coral, especially the less well understood deep-sea varieties. Growing up in rural Kansas, his only exposure to corals was through the pages of National Geographic. But that changed when he learned to scuba dive at his grandfather’s winter home in the Florida Keys. The experience, plus his interest in biology and geography, led him to Australia, where he earned his Ph.D.

Guinotte still remembers the thrill of exploring Australia’s Great Barrier Reef for the first time. “I was absolutely blown away by the abundance and diversity of coral,” he recalls. At that time, back in the late-1990s, scientists were increasingly concerned about coral bleaching caused by environmental stresses such as warming ocean temperatures. Those threats remain, Guinotte says, but ocean acidification may be an even more serious and intractable problem.

On the macro scale, Guinotte explains, the chemistry of ocean acidification is relatively clear. Based on some 25 years’ worth of measurements scientists know that oceans absorb about 22 million tons of carbon dioxide every day. The oceans are vast. But even so, the absorption of CO2 is now occurring at such an unprecedented rate that ocean chemistry is approaching a state not seen in many millions of years. Guinotte fears that many marine species might be unable to adapt quickly enough to survive these dramatic changes.

As carbon dioxide is absorbed by seawater, hydrogen ions are released. This lower the pH, making the water more acidic. Measurements indicate that Earth’s oceans are already about 30 percent more acidic than they were before the industrial revolution. As the number of hydrogen ions has risen, the number of carbonate ions available in seawater has gone down. This carbonate deficit makes life more difficult for the “marine calcifiers,” species such as coral and shellfish that use carbonate to build their skeletons and protective shells.

“Ocean water becomes increasingly corrosive to calcium carbonate,” says Guinotte. “A reduction in carbonate ions not only impedes corals’ ability to build their skeletons, but once the calcium carbonate drops below critical levels, the ocean erodes the framework they have built up previously — the reefs upon which corals live.” Even if select coral species can survive ocean acidification, Guinotte says, when the coral reefs begin to dissolve, the effects on the entire marine ecosystem are likely to be devastating.

Scientists know from the fossil record that reefs which sustained damage from high atmospheric concentrations of CO2 in the geologic past took millions of years to recover. “Given that we need to think in human time scales, it means we’re playing for keeps here,” says Guinotte. “To me, it sometimes seems like a school bus full of children heading for a cliff. Somehow we have to slow it down enough to find some real solutions.”

Because of the very clear potential for ocean acidification to effect everything from the tiniest oxygen-providing phytoplankton to the larger fish that feed in the coral reefs — or, as Guinotte has written, “from the shallowest waters to the darkest depths of the deep sea” — the threat to humankind is immense.

To figure out precisely how much acidification many varieties of coral can tolerate, and what we can do to preserve the health of the marine ecosystem, Guinotte argues for a coordinated research effort that tackles every aspect of the problem. That includes better monitoring of ocean carbon; closer tracking of calcifying organisms and more laboratory and field studies of their physiological responses to increasingly acidicity; and more detailed studies that model the threat to the marine ecosystem as a whole. Some of this work is under way, but too much of it has been conducted in piecemeal fashion. Only a more intensive, coordinated effort, says Guinotte, can provide the detail necessary for policymakers to develop strategies that protect critical species, habitats, and ecosystems.

“From the standpoint of the oceans,” Guinotte says, “there is no escaping the fact that we are going to need major reductions in our CO2 emissions — something like 80 to 90 percent. When we see governments arguing about reductions of 10 to 15 percent, I think all of us in the marine science community need to say that CO2 reductions of this scale are simply not going to be sufficient. We have to get off fossil fuels.”

The fossil record shows that high CO2 concentrations have likely played a big role in mass extinctions of marine life in the past. “If marine systems start to crash, it may well be too late to stop the train,” says Guinotte. “Governments are likely to panic and make irrational decisions; international tensions could certainly heat up. These are the kinds of things that keep me awake at night. I continue to hope we can get it turned around. But it will take political will, and so far, that has been in short supply.”

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JULIETTE JOWIT, Guardian UK, July 28, 2010

Phytoplankton might be too small to see with the naked eye, but they are the foundations of the ocean food chain, ultimately capturing the energy that sustains the seas’ great beasts such as whales.

A new study though has raised the alarm about fundamental changes to life underwater. It warns that populations of these microscopic organisms have plummeted in the last century, and the rate of loss has increased in recent years.

The reduction – averaging about 1% per year – is related to increasing sea surface temperatures, says the paper, published tomorrow in the journal Nature.

The decline of these tiny plankton will have impacted nearly all sea creatures and will also have affected fish stocks.

Phytoplankton provide food – by capturing energy from the sun – and recycle nutrients, and because they account for approximately half of all organic matter on earth they are hugely important as a means of absorbing carbon.

“This decline will need to be considered in future studies of marine ecosystems, geochemical cycling, ocean circulation and fisheries,” add the paper’s authors, from Dalhousie university in Nova Scotia, Canada.

The researchers looked at measurements of ocean transparency and tested for concentrations of chlorophyll, which gives large numbers of phytoplankton a distinctive green sheen. They said that although there were variations in some areas due to regional climate and coastal run-off, the long-term global decline was “unequivocal”.

The Nature article comes as climate scientists published what they said today was the “best ever” collection of evidence for global warming, including temperature over land, at sea and in the higher atmosphere, along with records of humidity, sea-level rise, and melting ice.

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ScienceDaily, June 19, 2010

The first comprehensive synthesis on the effects of climate change on the world’s oceans has found they are now changing at a rate not seen for several million years.

In an article published June 18 in Science magazine, scientists reveal the growing atmospheric concentrations of man-made greenhouse gases are driving irreversible and dramatic changes to the way the ocean functions, with potentially dire impacts for hundreds of millions of people across the planet.

The findings of the report emerged from a synthesis of recent research on the world’s oceans, carried out by two of the world’s leading marine scientists, one from The University of Queensland in Australia, and one from The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, in the USA.

Professor Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, lead author of the report and Director of The University of Queensland’s Global Change Institute, says the findings have enormous implications for mankind, particularly if the trend continues.

He said that the Earth’s ocean, which produces half of the oxygen we breathe and absorbs 30% of human-generated CO2, is equivalent to its heart and lungs. “Quite plainly, the Earth cannot do without its ocean. This study, however, shows worrying signs of ill health.

“It’s as if the Earth has been smoking two packs of cigarettes a day!”

He went on to say, “We are entering a period in which the very ocean services upon which humanity depends are undergoing massive change and in some cases beginning to fail,” says Prof. Hoegh-Guldberg. “Further degradation will continue to create enormous challenges and costs for societies worldwide.”

He warned that we may soon see “sudden, unexpected changes that have serious ramifications for the overall well-being of humans,” including the capacity of the planet to support people. “This is further evidence that we are well on the way to the next great extinction event.”

The “fundamental and comprehensive” changes to marine life identified in the report include rapidly warming and acidifying oceans, changes in water circulation and expansion of dead zones within the ocean depths.

These are driving major changes in marine ecosystems: less abundant coral reefs, sea grasses and mangroves (important fish nurseries); fewer, smaller fish; a breakdown in food chains; changes in the distribution of marine life; and more frequent diseases and pests among marine organisms.

Report co-author, Dr John F. Bruno, an Associate Professor at The University of North Carolina, says greenhouse gas emissions are modifying many physical and geochemical aspects of the planet’s oceans, in ways “unprecedented in nearly a million years.” “This is causing fundamental and comprehensive changes to the way marine ecosystems function,” Dr Bruno said.

“We are becoming increasingly certain that the world’s marine ecosystems are approaching tipping points. These tipping points are where change accelerates and causes unrelated impacts on other systems, the results of which we really have no power or model to foresee.”

The authors conclude: “These challenges underscore the urgency with which world leaders must act to limit further growth of greenhouse gases and thereby reduce the risk of these events occurring. Ignoring the science is not an option.”

In their study, the researchers sought to address a gap in previous studies that have often overlooked the affects of climate change on marine ecosystems, due to the fact that they are complex and can be logistically difficult to study.

According to leading US marine scientist, the University of Maine’s School of Marine Services Professor Robert S. Steneck, the study provides a valuable indicator of the ecological risk posed by climate change, particularly to coastal regions.

“While past studies have largely focused on single global threats such as ‘global warming’, Hoegh-Guldberg and Bruno make a compelling case for the cumulative impacts of multiple planet-scale threats,” Prof. Steneck said.

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MendoCoastCurrent, A Message from Richard Charter, September 29, 2008

The 27-year congressional offshore drilling moratorium will quietly lapse at midnight this Tuesday, September 30. Representing one of the most significant reversals of conservation protection in our time, this tragic event may be overshadowed in the media by the single most threatening economic crisis since the Great Depression.

We are also hearing that we may yet face a last-minute Senate Floor vote on an unspecified proposal by Republican Senator Jim DeMint of South Carolina this week, having to do with litigation and expedited OCS leasing.

As a Nation, our Founders long ago established the hallowed tradition of not unnecessarily trashing every part of our natural heritage, and Congress was able to extend this important tradition of preservation to our most sensitive coastal waters by maintaining the OCS moratorium throughout the past twenty-seven years.

During this period of struggle for our coasts, we have had a good run. We need to now rededicate ourselves to the health of our oceans and to the protection of our coastal environment as a matter of survival, and recommit our collective efforts in a new Congress and in each of our states to restoring what has been temporarily taken from us this year in the largest land-grab in U.S. history, while preparing to rebuild similar new protection for our coastal waters in a new Administration.

Our task will not be easy, but it has never been easy. The oil industry is funding Newt Gingrich to hold a big raucus celebration of their “energy independence victory” in Atlanta on Tuesday, but we will not be holding a wake for our coast. We know in our hearts that, in the words of the late David Brower, we are not yet so desperate that we must burn our cathedrals for firewood.

Greed may have temporarily triumphed in the short term through the generous distribution of petrodollars in Congress and the idiotic falsehoods and senseless fear spread by the likes of Fox News, but there is absolutely no other practical path ahead than to pursue an efficient transition to a new energy ethic to be constructively applied throughout the industrial world, beginning in an America that once again leads by positive example.

Attached are some suggested messaging points(HERE) for your consideration and use leading up to this week’s inevitable questions from reporters, and to the potential Senate vote on the DeMint legislation. The oil industry already appears to be planting numerous editorials in coastal states to the effect that residents need not worry, drilling rigs will not appear anytime soon, and these same industry PR efforts are sowing disinformation to the effect that individual states will be able to prevent offshore drilling if they don’t want it.

Thanking every single person who sent emails, wrote condolences, and who shed tears these past few days over just how inept and uncaring Congress could be at this time, thanking each and every single one of you who spent countless hours of volunteer time, some for three decades, to save the coast for our grandchildren, and most of all, reminding you, as if you needed it, that this is absolutely NOT over…

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