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.
In a report out yesterday the U.S. Geological Survey presents stats from a 62-year-long study that show that “every ice front in the southern part of the Antarctic Peninsula has been retreating from 1947 to 2009, with the most dramatic changes occurring since 1990.” While the hows and whys of global climate change can be argued ad infinitum, in my experience nowhere is the change more evident than along the Peninsula. The USGS report adds statistics to my empirical assessment.
I’m writing today from home in a very, very wet Hudson Valley; we’ve endured three straight days of falling snow and rain (temperature hovering at 31 degrees F), which means the outside world now resembles a slush swimming pool. I just came in from an investigative slosh and can report calf-deep mush. The relevance of this warm snowfall in New York State in a conversation about Antarctica? With both air and sea surface temperatures warming all along the 1,000-mile long Peninsula, on many austral summer days the ice along its edges resembles what’s just outside my door tonight: Wet. Slushy. Soft. And disappearing fast. Here in the Catskills the temperatures will get into the 40s in the next few days; flooding is already a major concern. Which is exactly what is happening along the Peninsula during these past two decades too: Warmer air and sea temperatures means less ice cover, thus more evaporation and more precipitation in the form of sleet and rain. And we all know what rain does to ice, makes it disappear very, very fast.
I’m fully expecting my basement to flood in the next few days, which will be a drag. I’m also fully expecting the ice along Antarctic’s Peninsula to disappear faster than most scientists believe, contributing to a minimum global sea level rise of twenty feet by the end of the century or before, which will be a major drag. Especially for the 200 million-plus people around the globe who currently live less than three feet above sea level.
In its press release the USGS explained that the area covered by its six-decade-long study contains five major ice shelves, the Wilkins, George VI, Bach, Stange and the southern portion of the Larsen Ice Shelf. “The ice lost since 1998 from the Wilkins Ice Shelf alone totals more than 4,000 square kilometers, an area larger than the state of Rhode Island,” reports the USGS.
But for me the most worrying part of its report is this: “Retreat along the southern part of the Peninsula is of particular interest because that area has the Peninsula’s coolest temperatures, demonstrating that global warming is affecting the entire length of the Peninsula.” Which means what in regard to the planet’s big picture? Everyone should do what I’m going to do later tonight in preparation for tomorrow, which is find the tallest pair of rubber boots I can.
We had good luck this past weekend, at the Vancouver International Mountain Film Festival, where they screened both TERRA ANTARCTICA and the brand-new WHAT WOULD DARWIN THINK?
TERRA was given the festival’s “Grand Prize for Best Film” (the Jury: Jon Bowermaster takes us with stunning images on his sailing boat and kayak right into the beauty of the seventh continent. A place, not many of us will ever have the chance to see. He delivers a subtle message about climate change as we visit various research stations. The funding acquired for this film shows in professional visuals and a round delivery.)
And DARWIN was given the prize as “Best Environmental Film” (the Jury: The message is clear in this film stuffed with beautiful shots of all the famous Galapagos species such as the turtles, iguanas and marine life. Simply too many people are pressuring the 3% of the island that is accessible for the public. Tourists and the people depending or co-depending on tourism “visiting” nature to death.)
I’ve obviously seen the films many times now, in small editing rooms, various computer screens and on big screens and each time out I pick up small things I hadn’t seen previously. More interesting each time out is watching and listening to the audience, getting a sense of what they respond to in each, what they laugh at, what they moan at, when it is that they start looking at their watches.
While the two films are quite different, set in two very different environments, they share one common theme: Both are pristine environments threatened in part due to man’s rapacious desire to put his/her footprints … everywhere. In both places booms in tourism have both benefited and put at risk environments that we love. The challenge for the very near future is to figure out how to both protect these special places while at the same time making them just accessible enough that visitors can come, see and return home as ambassadors for protecting them.
This coming weekend both films show at the prestigious San Francisco Ocean Film Festival, at Pier 39 on the Embarcadero. (TERRA at 1 p.m. on Saturday, DARWIN at 4 p.m. on Saturday.)
My first footsteps on Terra Antarctic this season were taken on Barrientos, one of the tiny Aitcho islands, part of the South Shetlands, still one hundred miles off the continent. (It was just twenty miles from here, on King George Island, that we dropped – and then picked up – our kayaks two years ago.) Those first steps each austral summer are always fantastic, memorable, a reminder of why I keep coming back year after year. The sky this morning is grey-green, the sun striving hard to burn through; the smell of the penguin colonies as powerful as ever. A recent snowstorm had buried many of the penguin nests, which have now been mostly unburied by their inhabitants. While the South Shetlands are not the most prolific wildlife spots in Antarctica, within a ten-minute walk I see three species of penguin (Gentoo, Chinstrap and a stand-alone, way-out-of-his-way King) and three different kinds of seal (Weddell, Elephant and Leopard).
Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica
The tall King – visible from the shore standing on the crest of a small hill, silhouetted – stands out distinctly because he is literally five times the size of the other birds. What he is doing here is a mystery; at some point he obviously made a wrong turn somewhere because his home is most likely South Georgia, 660 miles to the east. Apparently he’s been here for a couple seasons, so though he looks out of place, towering above the other penguins, he’s obviously decided to stay put. There are rumors he may have tried to breed while here, though unsuccessfully.
The afternoon’s walk is at one of my favorite stops, Deception Island. Landing on the beach at Bailey Head, with its steep and fast fall-off, is always a challenge. The reward? Somewhere between 120,000-160,000 breeding Chinstraps (even the penguin experts among us have a hard time counting them all). Walk off the black sand beach, beneath a heavily snow-capped volcano, and a wide valley opens up exposing a mile-long line of marching penguins, three, four, five abreast, making their way back and forth from the sea and up a gently-sloping, five-hundred-foot tall hill. Those coming from the cold Southern Ocean, stomachs swollen from several hours of fishing, many can barely stand or waddle. Those heading the other direction, towards the sea, are easily identifiable by their filthy stomachs, streaked in mud and guano from a long day spent nurturing a pair of eggs (chicks are coming within the next couple weeks).
From a seat on a chunk of ice atop the hill I watch the comings and goings for an hour. Below, on either side of the steep hill, plays out the whole lasciviousness of life: Flirtation. Sex. Birth. Loving. Feuding. Friendship. Feeding. Youth. Middle age. Impairment. Death.
What surprises most on their first visit to a colony – after they get used to the guano-tinged smell that will linger in their nose hairs for a couple weeks, even after they’ve left Antarctica – is the reality that everything in a penguin’s life takes place in this one place. Especially real is the dying. Skeletal remains in every form litter the black sand, from seashore to the top of the hill. Black-and-white wings attached to a Skua-cleaned skeleton; a solitary, perfectly intact foot; blood-filled bodies, just beginning to be pecked by scavengers; long, thin vertebrae. Elegiac, each is both art and a reminder that life often ends not far from where it began.
By eight p.m. a warmish breeze has blown up, the sun come … and gone, now hidden by clouds. In this season of course, it never gets completely dark – sunrise tomorrow is expected at 02:33.
Bailey Head, Deception Island, Antarctica
Someone emailed a very good question the other day, regarding my own carbon footprint, especially when traveling to such remote places as Antarctica. It’s both a legitimate question and one we should all ponder.
I’ve tried to work out my own carbon footprint online a couple times in the past, but as soon as I start to respond to Question 2 – “How often do you fly?” – the computer starts blinking red and smoking. Flying is a sizable contributor to CO2 in the atmosphere; I do it constantly and around the world. My only rationale is that by bringing back-stories from the places I fly to, and sharing them — especially with classrooms – I’m a bit absolved, though not completely. An option would be to stay home; I guess … one I will continue to ponder.
I traveled a couple years ago in the high Arctic with Richard Branson, who – as an airline company owner – knows a few things about the environmental impact of flying. His company, he explained, was experimenting with less-polluting fuels. As for his own personal carbon footprint, when it came to all the flying he does he rationalized … as all of us frequent fliers do. He was off the next month, for example, to South Africa, to meet with Jimmy Carter, Desmond Tutu and another nine peacemakers. “We could all walk there, I guess,” he said. “But I don’t think we’d get much accomplished. It doesn’t mean we don’t think about, or realize, the environmental impact of our actions.”
I’m out of the loop news-wise; has anyone published a story about the carbon contributions of the thousands who have gathered for eleven days in Copenhagen to debate the future of climate change?
I’ve spent many weeks along the coast of Vietnam and have a variety of friends who live and work along its low-lying shore so last week when Typhoon Ketsana whacked its beaches and jungles with one hundred mile an hour winds, heavy rains, mudslides and flooding, killing more than one hundred sixty people.
I heard from several living in the center of the country: “The airports in Danang and Hue are closed … both cities are flooded and without power … weather forecasters are predicting more heavy rain later this week … we will keep you updated.” In Vietnam the storm wiped out nearly 200,000 homes and ruined both crops and irrigation systems, leaving some of its largest cities roiled in waist-deep, murky brown waters for days. It could have been worse: More than 246 were killed in the Philippines, where 2.3 million were left homeless.
Storms happen, of course. But in recent years Vietnam has experienced more frequent and powerful typhoons and floods than ever before. The most destructive storm along its coast was 1999, which left 750 people dead or missing.
I’m often asked about the ‘real’ impacts of a changing global climate and I think these more ‘frequent and powerful’ storms are one of the most serious examples. Coincidentally, five days before Typhoon Ketsana slammed Vietnam, Seth Mydans had written a long story in the Times about the long-term potential damage to Vietnam’s coast by rising seas. He quoted a government report suggesting that 17 million people could lose their homes if sea levels rise as anticipated. “Climate experts consider this nation of an estimated 87 million people to be among the half-dozen most threatened by the weather disruptions and rising sea levels linked to climate change that are predicted in the course of this century.”
Unfortunately I think we’ll have to get used to seeing these images of low-lying coastlines around the world flooded, suffering from stronger and stronger storms, whether it’s Danang or Manila, New Orleans or New York City. One friend from Hue wrote: “I spent the day dragging everything in my house up to the roof to dry it in the sun, which has arrived after three days. Luckily I still have a house. Everyone here is worried about … next time.”
On Tuesday, September 29, in Washington D.C., National Geographic will be screening our award-winning, new, big, fun, informative, high-def film – TERRA ANTARCTICA, Rediscovering the Seventh Continent.
This National Geographic-sponsored exploration is a one-of-a-kind look at Antarctica from a unique perspective – sea level.
For six weeks we explored the Antarctic Peninsula by sea kayak, sailboat, foot and small plane, observing the fast changing evolution of this most remote place. Impacted by climate change – temperatures have warmed along the Peninsula faster than anywhere on the planet during the past 50 years – this part of Antarctica is also experiencing a boom in tourism and nations fighting over who owns what as its ice slowly disappears.
Given my interest in and commitment to exploring the world’s ocean and bringing back stories from it we couldn’t ask for a better honor than to be regarded as the film “that most effectively raises awareness and increases understanding about environmental and sustainability issues facing the oceans and its inhabitants.” That is exactly our goal.