Changing Climate: Part III

Traditional Hawaiian society understood and respected kai moana, the ocean, as the source from which all life begins. Today, ocean food resources contribute approximately $364 million annually to Hawai‘i’s economy, and make up a significant percentage of our local diets. The ocean provides a wealth of ecosystem services vital to the life of the planet, and is an invaluable cultural, spiritual, recreational, and aesthetic resource. Worldwide, our economic, social and political and environmental systems are dependent upon the health of the ocean.

As global temperatures rise and human-caused carbon dioxide increases, what is happening to our oceans? Whatever your perspective on climate change, there are some important trends that are worth considering.

Throughout the world, carbon dioxide is being produced in mass quantities, mainly through unsustainable agriculture, deforestation, cement production and the burning of fossil fuels. Over the past 200 years, the oceans have absorbed about a half of the CO2 emissions produced, exhibiting the fundamental role they play within the cycling of carbon. Dissolving of carbon dioxide into ocean surface waters increases the acidity of ocean surface waters. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Services predicts that we may see ocean acidification changes over the next several centuries greater than any inferred from the geological record of the past 300 million years.

Virtually every major biological function has been shown to respond to acidification changes in seawater, including photosynthesis, respiration rate, growth rates, calcification rates, reproduction, and recruitment. What does this mean? Acidification will inhibit the growth of coral reefs, plankton, and mollusks, disrupting the entire marine food web. According to Fish and Wildlife Services, “at the current rate of increase, atmospheric CO2 concentrations will reduce the saturation state of carbonate minerals in the surface ocean over the next 70 years until nearly all the locations of coral reefs are at or beyond their normal environmental limits.”

Besides acidification, coral reefs are also particularly sensitive to increases in water temperature, which causes coral bleaching. Coral bleaching is the whitening of corals, due to death of algae or the loss of pigmentation within the algae. Once bleaching begins, it tends to continue even without continuing stress. Rising sea temperatures will place many coral reefs into a temperature category that causes bleaching, leading to the destruction of major reef tracts and the extinction of many coral species.

Scientists are documenting an increase in the area of the least productive waters in the Pacific that is consistent with increases in sea surface temperatures. An expanding dead zone, similar to deserts on land, now extends into Hawaiian waters, and is expanding at a rate of one to four percent each year.

Our response to coral bleaching, ocean acidification, and loss of marine life should be place-based and culturally-based, recognizing and integrating the wisdom that exists locally. The conversation about climate change tends to be dominated by western thought and perspective, so how do we make it relevant to us? Traditional Hawaiian culture — practices, principles and philosophies -— offers far-reaching insight. Traditional Hawaiian knowledge was based on an acute awareness of one’s surroundings, fine-tuned over thousands of years as it was passed from one generation to the next, specific to place. Hawaiian names of reef areas indicate their specific ties to resources, deities, and activities that should and should not occur in the area.

Andrea Brower, The Garden Island, 13 September 2009. Full article.

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