EIGHT CLIMATE DISASTERS ON THE SEVEN SEAS
February 1, 2007
By David Helvarg
The latest report of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change tells us there’s a more than 90 percent certainty that human generated gasses are responsible for the Global Warming we’re experiencing. I’ve long talked about the 4 cascading disasters facing our living seas: Industrial Overfishing for the global seafood market, Coastal Sprawl, Pollution, and Fossil Fuel Fired Climate Change. OK, Here’s the kicker. We could solve the first three, implement all the recommendations of the Pew and U.S. ocean commissions, and still see the collapse of marine ecosystems if we don’t get control of number 4, anthropogenic (that’s human-induced) climate-change. So here are 8 more reasons for blue activists to join Bill McKibben’s climate protests planned for April 14 that call on Congress to pursue an 80 percent carbon cut by 2050 (see stepitup2007.org)
- Decline of basic marine productivity with more than 6 percent loss of phytoplankton in the last two decades according to a recent article in Nature based on both satellite and ocean surface observations. According to NASA biologist Watson Gregg the greatest loss of phytoplankton can be found in the parts of the ocean where surface temperatures have risen most rapidly since the early 1980s. This is because as surface water warms it becomes lighter and separates the sunlight-dependent plankton from upwelling cold nutrient rich deep waters.
- Warming seas also leads to sea level rise from expansion (water volume expands with temperature) and linked erosion of beaches and coastlines in heavily populated areas like Bangladesh and south Florida.
- Warming seas bleach tropical corals on a global scale with 50 percent already doomed according to top experts I’ve talked with at the Australian Institute of Marine Science and elsewhere. For more information see my coral bleaching chapter in the 2004 book, ‘Feeling the Heat — Dispatches from the frontlines of Climate Change,’ edited by Jim Motavalli.
- The same warming is contributing to more Category 4 & 5 hurricanes hitting our coasts according to a study published last fall in Science magazine and several since. This is linked to a one half to one-degree f. warming in the world’s sea surface temperature since the 1970s back when cat 4 &5s made up 20 percent of all hurricanes. Today they make up 35 percent.
- More intense El Nino — La Nina cycles impacting global weather patterns according to Jim Hanson of NASA, Kevin Trenberth at the National Center for atmospheric Research and other leading climatologists. These impacts include longer droughts, massive tropical forest fires like those seen in 1997/98, and flooding along the U.S. West coast.
- Slowing and possible stopping of the Gulf Stream Conveyer belt (the result of fresh water melt from Greenland and the Arctic) leading to a new ‘ice age,’ in Western Europe among other potential impacts. Eugene Linden’s book, ‘Winds of Change,’ gives a disturbing in-depth (yeah, I know) look at this.
- Melting and calving of polar ice in the Arctic, Greenland and possibly Antarctica leading to rapidly increased sea level rise (think 15 rather than 3 feet) and accelerated global warming. The later would result from the fact that light-colored ice reflects radiant heat back into space and darker open water absorbs it.
- Increased intake of human-generated carbon causing acidification of the ocean. Actually you could say the sea’s becoming less alkaline and it wouldn’t sound as bad, unless of course you’re a shell-forming critter like a coral polyp, lobster or clam in which case it’s all bad news. That’s because it’s going to get a lot harder for you to get calcium carbonate out of seawater to build your shell home. For more check out past issues of Nature, Scientific American, The New Yorker, and Blue Notes of course.
We’ve now got a new class year of politicians here in D.C. who seem willing to listen, but we still need to make sure we’re loud and clear. As Frederick Douglas said in regards to a previous human disaster: “It is not light we need but fire: It is not the gentle shower, but thunder. We need the storm, the whirlwind and the earthquake.”
A GOOD ENOUGH GRADE FOR YALE
President Bush may have slid through college with C minuses but I don’t’ think that’s good enough for Neptune’s realm. Admittedly the C- that the Joint Ocean Commission Initiative gave on its 2006 Report card is a tiny penguin step up from the D plus it gave the feds in 2005. I suspect they’re still grading on a curve however. The initiative is a joint effort of the Pew Ocean Commission and U.S. Commission on Ocean Policy, neither of which got the response they deserved from the White House or Congress after reporting that that the ecological collapse of our ocean represents a threat to our national security, economy and environment. In their new report card they note that regional and state ocean governance reform is moving forward like a hungry Jack while federal action seems to be drifting like a dead mullet.
In terms of National ocean policy and fisheries management the report recognizes progress with President Bush’s establishment of the Northwestern Hawaiian Islands Marine National Monument (Blue Notes #27) and the somewhat hopeful new reform of the Magnuson-Stevens Act (Blue Notes # 31)
The report card gives an F when it comes to funding ocean policy and programs however. The U.S. Commission had suggested the establishment of a $4 billion dollar annual Ocean Trust Fund to protect and restore America’s living seas. Asked by a group of Senators to give them a ‘top-ten’ list of priorities, the Joint Initiative suggested there is $750 million a year that needs to be spent on our public seas right now. Alternatively we could continue to spend it funding next Tuesday and Wednesday’s operations in Iraq (some conservative economists claim $750 million could actually cover 3 days of operations).
LAW OF THE Cs?
The report card also gave the U.S. a poor grade for international leadership citing its ongoing failure to ratify the UN Law of the Sea Convention. To review, Ronald Reagan didn’t want to sign on because the UN claimed deep-sea minerals were ‘the common heritage of mankind.’ Bill Clinton got enough corporate access written into the rules to get approval for the treaty and most in the Senate were ready to ratify but the vote was blocked by Senator Jesse Helms. His top staff on the issue told me the senator didn’t want to be part of an agreement, “where the U.S. doesn’t have a greater vote than anyone else.” After Helms left Senate Majority leader Bill Frist prevented the treaty from going to a floor vote. While LOS has the support of everyone from Greenpeace to the Pentagon, the far right sees it as part of a conspiracy to undermine U.S. sovereignty. It’s generally agreed that if brought to the Senate floor the treaty will pass with about 95 out of 100 votes. LOS experts like Caitlyn Antrim are keeping their eye on the ball, looking for any sign that it might finally be floating in the right direction.
WHAT DOES A SALMON SAY WHEN IT HITS IT’S HEAD ON A HARD OBJECT?
Dam, dam, dam, dam. That would be the four dams on the Klamath River that have been killing off salmon for generations. You may remember that just before the 2004 election White House resident slime eel Carl Rove got the Department of Interior to ignore its own scientists and divert much of the impounded water to Republican farmers in Oregon rather than let it run downriver to more democratic fishermen, recreational river users and Indian tribes in California. The result of this diversion was a massive salmon die off. Now with the Klamath’s 4 dams up for license renewal NOAA has told the owner to add $300 million in fish ladders. It will probably be cheaper for the company to tear down the dams. And that could restore both a once great salmon run and treaty obligations with California fishing tribes long ignored by the feds.
OCEANS OF MEDIA
The blue beat is beginning to emerge with the kind of placement it deserves. The CBS Evening News did a two-part series on ocean issues called ‘Troubled Waters’ that ran January 30 & 31. The LA Times Ken Weiss is following up his depressingly accurate 5-part series on the state of the oceans with a number of solution-oriented pieces (footnoted is our ’50 Ways to Save the Ocean’ book).
EarthEcho founder and Blue Frontier Board member Philippe Cousteau hosted ‘Ocean’s Deadliest’ along with the late Steve Irwin on Jan. 21st. Running on both Animal and Discovery channels, it was a visually engaging, well-focused documentary. Philippe did a great job maintaining continuity given the tragic loss of the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ part way through the shoot. And who’d have thought the most deadly creature is us? I was rooting for the sea snakes. ‘The Nation’s Mark Hertsgaard and NPR also produced some good pieces on the oceans in January, along with Harper’s, which ran a cover essay ‘Moby Duck’ by Donovan Hohn that seemed as endless as the sea, addressing ocean circulation, rubber ducks fallen off container ships, plastic pollution and the meaning of childhood.
THE PRICE OF WISDOM?
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