Oceans in crisis

Even if you think you understand what humanity faces in the enormous challenge that is climate change, reading Alanna Mitchell’s new book, Sea Sick: The Global Ocean in Crisis, will make you realize how little humans understand about our impact on the planet.

Large swaths of the planet’s population now accept – after years of warning by scientists – that the burning of fossil fuels like oil and coal is pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere and slowly raising the Earth’s temperature. On land, we are already feeling the impacts of global warming: rising sea levels, melting glaciers and disappearing species.

That’s nothing compared to what’s going on in the water.

The global ocean, which covers three-quarters of the planet, is sick. And it’s not just a head cold, Mitchell suggests.

The ocean absorbs one-third of the extra carbon we’re putting into the atmosphere, and that’s changing the water’s pH level, making it more acidic. Water temperature is rising. Increasing amounts of fresh water – from melting glaciers – are affecting the ocean’s salinity.

All bad news when you think of the importance of the ocean and marine life on Earth. For example, ocean currents move warmer water from around the equator to the north and south poles, making the planet livable. And, half the oxygen we breathe is produced from plankton, the microscopic organisms living in the ocean.

The ocean, a biologist told Mitchell, is like a switch for the planet, but instead of turning on a light, it turns on life. The switch can be flipped off, he told her, and humans have their hands on that switch right now.

Mitchell, a former Globe and Mail environment reporter, set out to explore what is going on in the oceans – not an easy task for a woman with a paralyzing fear of water, a result of having nearly drowned as a toddler.

What she found, by snorkelling along the Great Barrier Reef off Australia’s east coast, hiking through Spain’s Pyrenees mountain range and watching corals reproduce off the coast of Panama, were scientists documenting drastic and disturbing changes in the ocean.

She found coral reefs – which she describes as the planet’s maternity ward, because of their incredible ability to create and sustain life – dying off from increased pollution, overfishing and warming ocean waters.

In Spain, she hacked away at rock containing fossils from 55 million years ago, another time when the amount of carbon in the Earth’s atmosphere increased rapidly – not from pollution, but possibly because of warming in the ocean, or a landslide. Scientists study the fossils they find there to try to understand the impact of that great infusion of carbon on life on Earth. On the last day of that trip, she realized one of the men with them was from a Texas oil company. His job was to figure out where to find new oil and gas reserves. Where the scientists saw evidence of catastrophic climate change, he was looking for more fossil fuels to burn – the very cause of our current climate troubles.

Scientists exploring what is happening to the oceans – and to the creatures that live in them – are being criticized and their work negated by a world that’s not ready to listen to what they’re finding, she writes. The skepticism is not surprising, considering that the first major international scientific conference on climate change and oceans was held only last year, 10 years after the United Nations set up the International Panel on Climate Change.

One of the biggest problems is ocean acidification.

American marine ecologist/geologist Joanie Kleypas has found that carbon dioxide entering the atmosphere from burning fossil fuels is lowering pH levels in the ocean. Sea creatures like plankton and corals use calcium to build their shells and skeletons, but in a more acidic ocean, they won’t be able to get it. In fact, their shells would dissolve in more acidic ocean water. The first time that Kleypas understood the impact of ocean acidification, she ran into the nearest bathroom and threw up.

It meant, Mitchell writes, marine Armageddon.

“This is the most worrying of all the changes to the ocean because we don’t know and can’t predict how marine life will react to the new ocean chemistry,” she writes.

It’s not hard to see, after all her work, why Mitchell found herself preparing for a trip to the ocean’s floor utterly depressed and out of hope. She understood just how sick the ocean is, and how little anyone – besides the marine scientists – knows or seems to care. But down in the cold dark salt water with a group of scientists who were trying to find a cure for cancer with the knowledge they glean from deep-sea creatures, she realized that choosing hope will be the only way to turn the ocean around.

Keeping the ocean’s life switch turned on will require all of us, like Mitchell, to choose hope and to do something about it. Reading this book is a good first step.

Alanna Mitchell speaks at Books & Breakfast April 19 at 10 a.m. at Le Centre Sheraton Hotel, 1201 René Lévesque Blvd. W. For ticket prices and information, call 514-845-5811.

Mmonique Beaudin, The Gazette, 28 March 2009. Article.

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