Just when you thought things couldn’t get any worse ….
A new report to be released via the U.N. this week strongly suggests that the ocean is in far worse shape than we even imagined (“a shocking decline”) and that marine life is entering a phase of extinction “unprecedented in human history.”
Earth has already experienced five “mass extinction events,” going back some 500 million years, thanks to catastrophes like asteroid impacts and various big bangs. But it has long been considered fate that the next extinction, the sixth, would be thanks to man’s heavy footprint, as we continue to alter the planet’s physical landscape, overexploit a host of species, introduce alien species and pollute.
According to the panel comprised of 27 of the world’s top ocean experts – coral reef ecologists, toxicologists and fisheries scientists, assembled by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) — if trends are accurate this particular extinction will happen more quickly than previous ones.
Its conclusion does not mince words: “The findings are shocking,” says Alex Rogers, the group’s scientific director and professor of conservation biology at Oxford University. “As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realized.”
When it comes to scary reports, this one even outdoes the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s landmark 2007 report, surpassing even its worst, worst-case scenarios.
The new panel took a big, collective step backwards and looked at the whole ocean scene at once. What it saw was not pretty. It was not one particular abuse or man-influenced evolution that was most worrying but the cumulative impacts of the combination of melting sea ice, sea level rise, the release of methane trapped in the sea bed, the amount of plastic in the ocean, toxic algal blooms (dead zones) caused by nutrient-rich farm runoff, ocean acidification, warming of the seas, a myriad local pollutions and overfishing.
Rather than criticize-only, the report makes some specific – if broad – recommendations necessary if ocean life as we know it is to be preserved:
1. Stop overfishing … now!;
2. Map and then reduce pollutants, particularly plastic, fertilizers and human waste;
3. Make sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
“We now face losing marine species and entire marine ecosystems, such as coral reefs, within a single generation,” said Daniel Laffoley, head of the International Union for Conservation of Nature and co-author of the new report.
“And we are also probably the last generation that has enough time to deal with the problems.”
Should Americans be concerned by suggestions that terrorists have taken cues from the Somali pirates and will be hijacking ships across the Indian Ocean for reasons beyond ransom?
Increasing evidence links the mafia-like Somali clans that run the pirating to the Al-Shabaab Islamist insurgent group, which controls most of southern and central Somalia. Both the U.S. and the U.N. accuse Al-Shabaab of having links to al-Qaeda.
The rag-tag pirates who are grabbing small private yachts and cargo boats loaded with lawn tractors may be providing a working model for terrorists interested in hijacking tankers loaded with chemicals and cargo boats carrying weapons.
The pirates’ increasingly brazen successes can only be encouraging to others hoping to follow suit.
(For the rest of my dispatch go to takepart.com)
I’ve had several email exchanges with my friend David de Rothschild as he and the “Plastiki” move under tow along the coast of Australia, towards its final stop of Sydney. That 400 mile part of the trip concludes this weekend and the plastic-bottle boat will rest at dock there until it is recycled.
Reports on the boat’s last day at sea were confused, the reporting from Australia varied – was the “Plastiki” “rescued,” did the crew send out a “distress call” – and David wants to make it clear that nothing out of the ordinary happened last Saturday off the coast of Australia.
“We never sent a distress signal, we paid for a charter to pick us up as was always the plan.”
The sail was a remarkable success and we wait news from DdR regarding plans for both the catamaran and his next adventure.
If you think the long-term impacts of the Deepwater Horizon explosion are going to be harmful on a variety of fronts, wait until they start opening up the ocean floor for copper, nickel, gold, silver, cobalt and more a mile below the surface.
Which, if the Chinese have their way, is about to happen, in international waters in the Indian Ocean off the coast of Papua, New Guinea.
So-called “deep sea mining” was first proposed as far back as the mid-1960s, in a book called Mineral Resources of the Seas by J.L. Mero. He described the potential as “limitless.” Over the next 20 years the U.S., Germany, France and others spent hundreds of millions of dollars investigating the possibilities. The Convention on the Law of the Sea created an International Seabed Authority to oversee potential mines; the Chinese have recently applied for a permit.
The possibility of mining the ocean floor 4,000 to 9,000 feet below the surface has been seriously rumbled about in recent years, especially in countries with booming populations thus resource needs. The Chinese are willing to pay for the risky and expensive operation and a Canadian company, Nautilus Minerals, is willing to undertake the labor.
(For the rest of my dispatch, go to takepart.com)
With the BP well apparently capped and not leaking, at least for now, I went back to a few of the Louisianans – our “voices from the spill’’ – some of whom I’ve known for years, other for many months.
I was curious if the capping had washed a big wave of relief over the Gulf States … or if they were expecting some kind of tsunami to follow on the heels of what most are regarding with cautious optimism as a positive sign.
Paul Templet recently retired as a professor of environmental science at LSU; for four years he was head of the state’s Department of Environmental Quality. His experience over the years, in a state long run by the oil industry, has made him a slightly cynical realist.
He answers my question – Why did it take BP so long? – with several of his own.
“Why didn’t they have one of these caps sitting in a warehouse somewhere and put it to use three months ago. Why did they use so much dispersant, which makes the oil harder to recover. Injecting dispersants directly into the plume at the ocean floor means that the oil was distributed throughout the water column and will be difficult, if not impossible, to recover. Otherwise the oil would have risen to the surface and could then have been scooped or skimmed off the surface. But then it would have been visible and that’s why I suspect they were injecting dispersants. The booms and other stuff out there are basically useless.
“Only time will take care of the oil, but I suspect we’ll see it come ashore for years whenever we have a storm in the Gulf.”
Marylee Orr runs the state’s most effective environmental group, the 23-year-old Louisiana Environmental Action Network (L.E.A.N.). Like Templet, she skeptical if hopeful. “It seems to have worked but let’s not forget this is not a permanent fix. The relief well will still have to permanently plug the well bore so we still have a ways to go … and meanwhile we still have the crude oil slick and the dispersed oil plume coming onto shore.
Why did it take so long? She is convinced that no one ever really planned for a “worst-case scenario.”
“I almost fell out of my chair when I heard the Unified Command Center (in Houma) say there was no (plan to clean up a) worst case scenario because they didn’t believe it could ever happen.
“Also, when it comes to the clean-up, we are still using technology from 20 years ago, the exact same as when the Exxon Valdez spilled. I personally asked the EPA why there have been no advances in twenty years. And, for example, what is its plan for bio-remediation, because of all the marshes in Louisiana opposed to the beaches in the other Gulf States? We’re still not getting good answers.
One thing LEAN has noticed is an increase in suicide, substance abuse and domestic violence. “Plaquemine Parish has already seen domestic violence increase 100% since the disaster,” says Orr.
Ivor van Heerden is a coastal restoration expert. He oversaw the commission that investigated the levee failures during Hurricane Katrina and was then let go from his university research position at LSU when his report rubbed some the wrong way (by blaming the Army Corps of Engineers).
He began flyovers of the spill-impacted ocean within hours after the accident, and has been consulting with BP on how to clean up the mess.
In response to why the fix took so long, his take is that it required extremely difficult engineering, taking place a mile below the surface. “They had to fully research the problem; the integrity of the remaining riser; the structural integrity of the ocean bottom above the oil deposit; and then design a structure that would be multifaceted and allow complete closure but also the ability to bleed off oil if needed.”
His reaction to the capping is that “it is a real plus.” He also thinks the oiling of the Louisiana coastline would have been far worse already if they hadn’t somewhat successfully been managing the outflow of fresh water from the Mississippi River to combat it. “But the river is now down and the potential for serious oiling over a larger area exists. So far we have 63 miles of coastline impacted by heavy oiling.
Some locals are not as positive about the capping. “It’s like putting a Band-Aid on a dead man in my opinion,” crabber Jeff Ussury told the New York Times. He doubted the news of the capping was even true. “I started out kind of believing in them,” he said, “but I don’t believe in them at all anymore.”
“What’s to celebrate?” asked Kindra Arnesen is the wife of a shrimper from Plaquemines Parish, La., who I wrote about last week for having witnessed what BP called it’s “balloon and ponies” show.
“My way of life’s over, they’ve destroyed everything I know and love,” she said, before going on to explain, in detail, why she believes the pressure tests are likely to fail.
The most simple and direct response I got to my question (First reaction to the spill apparently being capped?) was from Dean Wilson, who lives on the edge of the Atchafalaya Swamp and is its caretaker. Dean is from Spain but has called the swamp home for the past 25 years. His two-word reply?
Is it really possible that the planet’s blue space is at risk of being completely consumed and abused?
Given the gusher in the Gulf (86 days and counting) it is easy to imagine man having nothing but negative impact on the world’s ocean. But with 72 percent of the planet covered by salt water is it really possible that our one big ocean could truly be at risk of what some have dubbed “ocean sprawl?”
I’d like to say no, that the ocean is simply too big, that while the its fringes may suffer from man’s flagrant contempt, won’t the bulk of it be protected simply by its its depths, its enormity, its far-awayness?
Then I remind myself just how rapacious we have proven as a species.
Man’s heavy footprint on the ocean came to me the other day flying low in a helicopter south of Port Fouchon, Louisiana, headquarters of the state’s $70 billion a year oil industry. Below, everywhere I looked were scattered oilrigs, shrimpers, tankers, small fishing boats, floating docks and barges, stretching for many miles away from the coastline.
Let’s not be fooled by current events though; it is hardly just the oil industry that is threatening Planet Ocean.
Oil and natural gas are obvious villains, in part due to the BP spill, but also the infrastructure that accompanies it, giant physical rigs and infrastructure carrying resources from seabed to shore.
But we use – and abuse — the ocean in hundreds of ways, from fishing to generating electricity, from tourism to military protection. Shipping lanes collide with the migration routes of endangered whales. Fish farming booms while climate change alters ocean chemistry. Power lines, reefs, lobster traps and sunken ships compete for seafloor space. New energy sources including wave generated power and offshore wind turbines each eat up space. Every year coastal development destroys 20,000 acres of estuaries and near-coast fish habitat (Louisiana’s coastline alone loses 25 square miles a year, a football field every half hour). Urban waste runs-off into the ocean, so do millions of gallons of pesticides from farm fields. Plastics and cigarette butts are the most common types of ocean litter. And then there are those damn oil spills.
It is the cumulative impact that is most worrying. Is the ocean’s future to become some kind of watery version of Houston – paved over, horribly polluted, with no zoning, no controls.
Around the globe three billion people live within an hour of the ocean. In the U.S. the ocean that surrounds creates more than two million jobs and more than $128 billion in gross domestic product each year. One impediment to taking care of and monitoring man’s impact is because there is no one agency or policy controlling it. In the U.S. more than 140 laws are administered by six different federal departments and twenty different agencies, each operating under conflicting mandates and often failing to coordinate with one another in their efforts to “look after” our ocean and coastlines.
Within months of taking office President Obama set up a first-of-its-kind task force to put together a federal plan for the ocean and coastlines. He stocked it with some of the best and the brightest drawn from the marine biology world. Since issuing an interim report ninety days after it was first set up the task force has been largely on hold as the same team has devoted itself to the Gulf of Mexico oil gusher.
For all those good intentions, which I hope arrive at some kind of national Ocean Policy, ever since man started using the ocean – to explore, to open trade routes, for resources – he has approached the ocean with a single mindset: Out of sight, out of mind.
It is in part the ocean’s very vastness and seeming toughness that has allowed us to continue to abuse it.
That has to change, for the ocean’s sake, for our sake.