Triage for Our Ocean

by on March 1, 2019 · 1 comment

in Environment

Dead coral

By David Helvarg / Blue Notes / Feb. 22, 2019

When I wrote Blue Frontier: Saving America’s Living Seas, at the beginning of this century, I was worried. Industrial overfishing for the global seafood market, oil, chemical, nutrient and plastic pollution, loss of coastal habitat needed for restoration, plus the emerging signs of climate change, were reaching critical mass.

Still, I saw the challenges as ultimately solvable if we just mobilized the political will and professional expertise needed. I believed this so strongly, I went on to write 50 Ways to Save the Ocean, celebrating the ways that each individual could be a part of this change. I was hopeful about growing citizen engagement, smarter ocean policies and cutting edge technologies.

That was then. Twenty years later, the “climate factor” looms larger than ever, especially when we focus on our largest planetary system—the ocean. We are now seeing changes in the physical nature of the ocean, its circulation, temperature, chemistry, and even its color, as a result of human-driven climate impacts.

We are now seeing changes in the physical nature of the ocean, its circulation, temperature, chemistry, and even its color, as a result of human-driven climate impacts.

The effects of a changing ocean are everywhere in our lives. Along with driving more destructive storms, a warmer, more acidic ocean holds less dissolved oxygen, meaning expanded dead zones and declining and shifting phytoplankton (algae) production. Phytoplankton make up the big “pasture” on which the marine food web feeds and that also generates more than half the planet’s oxygen.

Changes in the numbers of these tiny creatures is also what is likely to cause the ocean to change color by 2100, with bluer blues and greener greens. Also shifts in marine circulation and ice will continue to impact weather and agriculture, for example the increased frequency of the polar vortex dipping south into the United States and its studied link to declining polar ice.

We’re also seeing that the migratory patterns of marine wildlife are shifting both vertically—the largest wildlife migration on Earth is the nightly rise and retreat of marine biomass such as krill and squid that feed near the surface in darkness—while cold water fish, lobster, and marine mammals are shifting horizontally towards the poles in search of cooler waters.

A warming ocean is also a larger ocean; warm water expands as its molecules move faster (boil a kettle of tea if you don’t believe me). That, plus freshwater runoff from the world’s melting glaciers is not only raising sea levels, wave heights, and storm surges but also increasing rates of warm water ocean evaporation. This in turn, is generating more intense “rain bombs.” After 2017’s Hurricane Harvey, scientists were able to attribute between 15 and 38 percent of the rainfall that caused massive flooding in the Houston Texas area directly to human-driven climate change.

This, in turn, is having a measurable effect on the more parochial concerns of humans—ocean productivity and predictability. Put simply, we’re rapidly moving from what policymakers used to call ocean and coastal management to what emergency room and battlefield physicians call triage; saving what we can while we can.

In October, 2018 the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of the world’s leading scientists in the field, warned that global carbon emissions would have to be cut by at least forty-five percent by 2030 if there’s any hope of keeping planetary warming at a dangerous but less than catastrophic level.

But to do that we need to reduce our global dependence on fossil fuels by half in the next eleven years. The last time the United States took on a task on that scale was World War II, when we mobilized war production to become the world’s “arsenal of democracy” and launched the Manhattan Project that created the first atomic bombs.

Unfortunately, those who are today not denying climate science on behalf of the coal, oil, and gas industries (the Republican Party) are treating it like the 1983 U.S. invasion of the tiny island of Grenada (most of the Democratic Party) rather than the existential threat to human civilization and planetary biodiversity that it is. One promising exception is progressive Democrats recent introduction of the Green New Deal Congressional resolution as an aspirational model for how we can quickly scale up our policy responses to the level needed.

So now our job is to do what we can using our moral and political authority, litigation, and imagination, perhaps motivated by the words of the anti-Fascist Italian philosopher Antonio Gramsci. He suggested we approach life with “pessimism of the spirit; optimism of the will.”

What does that mean in practice? The rapid pace at which the United Nations seems to be moving toward a high seas treaty that would protect the two-thirds of the ocean beyond any nation’s jurisdiction from commercial fishing and other extractive industries improves my will and spirit. It’s also the result of a global activist effort based on what science has already shown: large protected areas of nature are more resilient to climate impacts than those compromised by extraction and pollution.

And perhaps being a Californian makes it hard not to maintain a core of optimism. In my most recent book, The Golden Shore – California’s Love Affair with the Sea, I describe how, with forty million people and the world’s fifth largest economy, our state has made the link between good stewardship of our coast and ocean and a healthy economy. And our new Governor Gavin Newsom appears to be more of a climate and environmental activist than former Governor Jerry Brown.

And the young activists I work with don’t allow me much time for gloomy pessimism. Groups like Heirs to our Oceans and Sea Youth Rise Up, and individuals like Hannah Testa, the sixteen-year-old anti-plastics activist who participated in our first global March for the Ocean last June and helped get the state of Georgia to establish a Plastic Pollution Awareness Day, are not just future leaders. They are our partners today, if we’re willing to work with them, mentor when asked, and maintain a sense of realistic possibilities for the future they’re looking towards.

Pessimism of the spirit and optimism of the will are about saving enough to rebuild, even if we may not see see the results in our own lifetimes.

David Helvarg is a former OBcean and writer for the original OB Rag; also a war correspondent, author, award-winning journalist, and founder of the Blue Frontier Campaign. His latest book is The Golden Shore–California’s Love Affair with the Sea.

This article was also published in The Progressive magazine.

{ 1 comment… read it below or add one }

Howard Dryden March 3, 2019 at 12:08 am

70% of our oxygen is produced by plankton in our oceans and more than 50% of carbon dioxide is absorbed. The plankton represent the greatest mass of plants and animals on the planet, yet we have lost 50% of them over the last 50 years. Currently plankton is dying at a rate of 1% year on year. We are losing the planets life support system that produces our oxygen and regulates the climate.

The lower the mass of plankton the more acidic the oceans become, in 25 years the pH will reach 7.95 at which point there will be a trophic cascade collapse of the entire marine ecosystem. Climate change will be the least of our problems.

The collapse of the marine ecosystem is being caused by micro-plastic in combination with priority chemicals such as Oxybenzone, a chemical used in sunscreen and cosmetics. We can all do something to stop the destruction of the oceans,


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