Our Oceans: What Could Happen

Jacqueline Savitz is a Marine Scientist and Senior Campaign Director of the Climate and Pollution Campaigns for Oceana,a global ocean conservation group.

It’s New Year’s morning and I’m reflecting on my “to do” list over coffee. I need to plan this year’s vacation to Australia to do some snorkeling and diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I also need to pick up groceries for a dinner party. I’m planning to serve salmon and Oysters Rockefeller.

While my list is certainly do-able today, the story could be very different by mid-century if we don’t find a way to shift to a low carbon energy economy.

Scientists now predict with a great degree of certainty that unless we switch to a clean energy economy, climate change will result in increased severity and intensity of storms, melting sea ice, rising sea level, changes in food production and drinking water availability and importantly, the acidification of our oceans and a mass extinction of corals.

Sea level rise combined with the increased frequency and intensity of storms, could force many of us to relocate our homes to higher ground. Scientists predict that sea level could rise nearly three feet by the end of the century. And 3.4 million Americans live less than a meter above sea level.

In the oceans, the mass extinction of corals will be well underway by mid-century as ocean waters become more acidic, making it harder for corals to build the skeletons they need to survive. Because many other marine animals depend on corals, the decline of corals will spark a widespread cascade of devastation.

Many different animals will be affected by the depletion of corals. Beautiful reef fish and other colorful sea life that are crucial to tourism depend on corals, and fish higher up in the food chain depend on those smaller fish to live. So tourism and fishery-related jobs will suffer.

Any sea animal that uses calcium carbonate to build its shell or skeleton is also at risk, including lobsters, crabs, mussels, clams and oysters, to name a few.

Then there are the small plankton that serve as “fish food.” These tiny animals are the foundation of the food web—all of our major fisheries depend on them. One vulnerable type of plankton, the pteropod or sea butterfly, plays a key role in the food chain since salmon and other fish are highly dependent on pteropods for their food. But pteropods are in real danger of extinction due to ocean acidification.

Jacqueline Savitz, http://www.pbs.org , 9 January 2009. Full article.

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