What’s worse than an oil spill? (video)

A year ago, the Deepwater Horizon drilling rig exploded, gushing nearly five million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico before it was finally capped three months later. It was by most accounts a disaster. But when it comes to wrecking our oceans, the accidental BP spill was small compared with the damage we do with intent and ignorance.

I recently talked about this with two men who specialize in ocean affairs: Carl Safina, the author of “A Sea In Flames” and the president of the Blue Ocean Institute; and Ted Danson, (yes, that Ted Danson), who recently published Oceana (the book) and is a board member of Oceana, the conservation organization he helped found. As Safina said, “Many people believe the whole catastrophe is the oil we spill, but that gets diluted and eventually disarmed over time. In fact, the oil we don’t spill, the oil we collect, refine and use, produces CO2 and other gases that don’t get diluted.”

That CO2, of course, leads to global warming and climate change, as well as what’s called ocean acidification, which might be thought of as oceanic global warming and is a greater catastrophe than any spill to date. The oceans absorb about 30 percent of the carbon dioxide in the atmosphere, creating carbonic acid. Since the start of the industrial revolution we’ve added about 500 billion metric tons of carbon dioxide to the oceans, which are 30 percent more acidic than they were a couple of hundred years ago.

This acidification makes it difficult for calcifying organisms — coral, snails and oysters and other mollusks, and more — to build shells and skeletons sturdy enough for them to survive. Many of these are on the bottom of the food chain and, as they begin to die off (we’ve already seen massive oyster declines on the Pacific coast), the effects trickle up. Acidification has already wreaked havoc on coral reefs, on which about 25 percent of all marine life depends. By the end of this century, Safina says, the ocean will begin dissolving coral reefs — unless we make a big change in our fossil-fuel use.

Mark Bittman, The New York Times – The Opinion Pages, 19 April 2011. Full article and video.

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