Gassy Apocalypse, Cartoons, Soul and more!
December 20, 2011
By David Helvarg
In This Issue
Game Over on Climate?
Cartoon Species Being Erased
Blue Art: Brian Skerry
Seaweed Spotlight: The Bay Institute (SF) & Heal the Bay (LA)
Benchley Awards Update
Booking to the finish
Sharing & Giving this Sea/sun
Faced with an existential threat, the world’s powers have punted yet again at the UN climate talks in Durban, South Africa. Yet a report from the Russian Arctic may make a decision on how and when to transition from fossil fuels almost irrelevant. It seems to confirm a worst-case scenario, a feedback loop of greenhouse gasses that scientists have been warning of for some time.
First, I should note that for years as an environmental journalist, scientists were always assuring me that the public was overreacting to things like oil spills and Alar (a chemical sprayed on apples). Only these days it’s the scientists who seem more alarmed than the public. (Where do you fall?) One major reason is what they call natural feedback loops from the impacts of climate change. As one Antarctic scientist pointed out, “Climate is an angry beast and we’re poking it with a sharp stick.”
One reason Arctic summer ice has disappeared faster than climate models had predicted is because of one of these feedback loops. Ice reflects solar radiation back into space while dark open water absorbs it, so as more water was exposed along the edge of the ice, the warming/melting effect was and is accelerated, something not incorporated into the modeling.
The bigger fear has been that as the frozen tundra and taiga of the Arctic defrosted, hundreds of millions of tons of methane trapped and frozen below the surface would begin to gas off into the atmosphere. Now Dr. Igor Semiletov of the Russian Academy of Sciences has just released new data at the American Geophysical Union meeting last week in San Francisco from a recent cruise along the eastern Siberian Shelf. His survey found huge and hugely expanding plumes of methane bubbling to the surface of the shallow water along the once frozen coast. He told the British newspaper The Independent he was astonished by the scale of the methane leaks. Methane is a greenhouse gas at least 20 times as powerful (heat trapping) as carbon dioxide. This very scary news has yet to leak into U.S. mainstream media, however, which seems more excited about the new season of Fear Factor.
And so in the face of a culture of denial some folks are looking for cute ways to highlight the potential disasters of runaway climate change, pollution and species extinction. The International Union for the Conservation of Nature recently gathered a team of U.S. and Canadian scientists to assess the status of all the sea creatures, sea turtles, seahorses, sharks and other fish including of course clown fish that appeared in the 2003 Disney movie Finding Nemo. They found that 18 percent of the species shown are at risk of extinction from overfishing and other human activities. (Even more at risk when they can’t hear us coming.) And while Nemo escapes from captivity at the end of the movie, the movie itself inspired a boom in the sale of clown fish where the fish are taken off of reefs for the aquarium trade. (Read more on this from Benchley Award recipient Juliet Eilperin.)
But let’s not forget that fish also have some unique survival and reproductive strategies. Many like groupers and clown fish are transsexual for example so that if the dominant female clown fish is killed or eaten by a barracuda say, the next largest male will transition to become the dominant female over several days. But I guess Disney and Pixar were just not ready to show Nemo’s dad becoming his new mom.
Someone who does understand the strange and fascinating world at sea is Brian Skerry, an engaging and widely praised photojournalist specializing in underwater imagery of marine wildlife and their environments. Much of his work appears in the pages of National Geographic magazine. National Geographic is also publisher of his latest book Ocean Soul. “This is a work in progress,” he explains. “160 photos and 23,000 words about my love affair with the ocean.” He started his underwater career shooting shipwrecks off New England. Today he worries about the wreckage of the ocean resulting from overfishing and pollution and talks about “both the horror and the magic,” that he finds while diving. He uses his photography to tell stories that not only celebrate the magic, but also raise awareness of the large number of issues that endanger our oceans and their inhabitants. Ocean Soul is divided into bio-chapters on warm water, cool water, cold water and pristine waters and shows off the creatures he’s met there. Rather than just other faces of humanity these images offer us the bright faces, shapes and forms of the majority of our fellow beings on this strange blue sphere we call earth but clearly, after seeing Brian’s work, you’ll understand is really planet ocean.
Seaweed Spotlight: The Bay Institute (SF) & Heal the Bay (LA)
A new regular feature of Blue Notes where we shine the light on a group from the Blue Movement Directory in order to create a more self-aware and collaborative movement. This month we feature two California bay groups representing (respectively) the north and the south.
Our 5th and 6th profile in our 1,000 plus series on solution oriented blue groups looks at a couple of similar groups fighting to protect two of California’s most treasured bodies of water, San Francisco Bay and Los Angeles’ Santa Monica Bay.
Founded in 1981 to increase freshwater flows into San Francisco Bay and make the link between the health of the Sacramento Delta system and the second largest estuary on the West Coast, The Bay Institute today is a strongly respected regional voice linking science and policy, working to restore 100,000 acres of bay wetlands and, according to CEO John Frawley, “giving voice to the bay through scientific research, education and advocacy.” As part of its educational efforts in 2009, the institute took charge of the Aquarium of the Bay at Pier 39 that today “acts as a kind of bay nature center and watershed aquarium,” says Frawley. The aquarium, located in the heart of the city’s waterfront tourist district, draws some 600,000 visitors a year including 20,000 school kids who get to visit free with its sharks and rays and learn how they can help restore their local waters. Plus the Institute is the designated lead group for the America’s Cup Healthy Oceans Project that will culminate with the big race in 2013.
Los Angeles’ Heal the Bay was founded in 1985 to end the dumping of untreated sewage into Santa Monica Bay from the (since upgraded) Hyperion sewage plant. Today, with a staff of just under 50 it’s the largest seaweed group in southern California and works on a range of issues from reducing urban storm water runoff to sponsoring monthly beach clean-ups and community action campaigns.
“Right now we’re working on plastic pollution at both the local and state level with grassroots education like our 5th annual “Day without a (plastic) Bag”, says Heal the Bay’s Marketing Director Natalie Burdick. “We also worked to pass bans on single use bags in Santa Monica and Long Beach, are working for a similar ban in L.A. and on statewide legislation.”
Southern California’s Marine Protected Areas (no-take ocean wilderness zones) goes into effect January first. Heal the Bay was one of the stakeholders in that process and will be celebrating “Underwater Parks Day” on January 21.
Heal the Bay also runs the small Santa Monica Pier Aquarium that receives some 85,000 visitors a year including 15,000 students. One of the most effective aquarium exhibits I’ve ever seen is their simple side by side current tanks, one containing a live floating moon jellyfish and the other a floating plastic bag, demonstrating how sea turtles might confuse their favorite food with something that could choke and kill them.
Benchley Awards Update
There are less than two weeks left to submit your candidate(s) for the 5th annual Peter Benchley Ocean Awards to be held at San Francisco’s California Academy of Sciences on Friday, June 1, 2012. Categories include; Science, Policy, Exploration, Solutions, Media, Youth Activism, National Stewardship and Hero of the Seas.
The 2011 National Stewardship Award went to President Laura Chinchilla of Costa Rica for her expansion of the Marine Protected Area around Coco Island National Park where thousands of hammerhead sharks and other sea critters gather. Now Dr. Jorge Jimenez, Director General of the MarViva Foundation, has announced the creation of a permanent trust fund to support this and other regional MPAs. It will fund enforcement patrols around Coco Island and other sites in Costa Rica and Panama covering the cost of boats, crews and operational expenses. After all environmental protection laws are only as good as the people willing to go in harm’s way to enforce them.
During my last trip for my next book Golden Shore, about California and the sea, I got to fly over California’s Lost Coast, the largest road-less coastal range in the United States outside Alaska. Thanks to long-time pilot Joe Shepp for the ride along. Here’s a shot I took of coastal conservation in place in the most populous state in the nation. Pretty, huh?
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