To Save Our Oceans, We Have to Change What We Do on Land

By Todd Woody, a California-based environmental journalist who focuses on ocean issues. Originally published at Grist

For decades, oceans have served as the planet’s carbon garbage dump, soaking up 90 percent of the excess atmospheric heat generated since 1970 and a third of our greenhouse gas emissions. Now the 71 percent of the Earth that makes life on land possible has reached a frightening tipping point that threatens human existence, according to a landmark report issued Wednesday by the United Nations-supported Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, or IPCC.

The findings suggest severe consequences for both humanity and nature, according to Ko Barrett, the panel’s vice chair, who spoke at a press briefing on Tuesday. “This report highlights the urgency of timely, ambitious, coordinated and enduring action,” said Barrett, who is also the deputy assistant administrator of oceanic and atmospheric research at the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “What’s at stake is the health of ecosystems, wildlife, and importantly, the world we leave our children.”

Even if greenhouse gas emissions magically ceased today, so much heat is already baked into marine ecosystems that the ocean would continue to warm, sea levels would keep rising, and acidification and deoxygenation would persist for decades to come, noted Nate Bindoff, a report author and oceanographer at Australia’s University of Tasmania.

The report comes as the ocean faces growing threats from overfishing, plastic pollution, and seabed mining. It also arrives at a moment when — despite lackluster global efforts to reduce carbon emissions — innovative new approaches are emerging to combat the effects of climate change in the oceans. And much of that work could be done on land.

Water, Water Everywhere

The massive IPCC report – 104 authors from 36 countries synthesizing 6,981 scientific studies — details climate change’s impact on the oceans, coastal areas, mountain glaciers, and polar ice caps, ecosystems on which some 1.4 billion people depend for food, water and livelihoods.

The key findings are alarming: Ocean warming has doubled since 1993. The frequency of marine heat waves, which are devastating the world’s coral reefs, have doubled since 1982 and are intensifying. Reefs remain at high risk of extinction even if global temperature rise is kept to 1.5 degrees Celsius above pre-industrial levels, as called for by the Paris climate accord. Extreme flooding of coastal areas will likely occur at least yearly by 2050. Fish populations face collapse thanks to a combination of ocean acidification, loss of oxygen, and warming of the ocean’s surface, which blocks the flow of nutrients to and from the deep sea.

Alas, there’s more: Sea levels will continue to rise as the melting of the Greenland and Antarctic ice sheets accelerates throughout this century. If emissions are kept in check, sea levels could rise by an estimated 1 meter (3 feet) by 2300. But if carbon emissions climb unrestrained, sea levels could increase by several meters – without factoring in the potential collapse of Antarctic ice sheets.

Meanwhile, the Southern Ocean is heating up fast and accounted for as much as 62 percent of global ocean temperature rise between 2005 and 2017. That’s more bad news for small Pacific island nations that already contend with rising oceans, dwindling fishing stocks, and more frequent and intense tropical cyclones. Add to all this: Widespread thawing of permafrost could release tens to hundreds of billions of tons of carbon and methane into the atmosphere.

Curbing Reef Madness

It’s harder to imagine a more clear alarm. But efforts are already underway to start to address the scope of this looming crisis.

A group of leading coral scientists in Australia, for instance, thinks the key to helping the battered Great Barrier Reef is tying its survival to the preservation of ecosystems on land, such as the 425,000-square-kilometer (164,000-square-mile) catchment on the northeastern part of the continent, which drains to the world’s largest reef system.

The researchers wrote a commentary published last week in Nature in which they suggest alternative uses for $14 million that Australian policymakers give to “local-scale approaches” for reef restoration, like coral gardening. Instead, they recommend the country ditch coal for renewable energy, move aquaculture — such as seafood farming — to land to prevent a buildup of antibiotics and animal waste in the ocean, and tend to wetland areas and coastal vegetation, like mangroves.

“All of these actions would simultaneously reduce emissions, capture carbon, curb agricultural runoff onto coastal reefs and enhance people’s livelihoods and food security,” the scientists wrote. “Thus, the benefits would extend far beyond the preservation of coral reefs.”

After unprecedented back-to-back marine heat waves in 2016 and 2017 killed off half the Great Barrier Reef’s corals, a slew of solutions were proposed, from dispatching robots to disperse coral larvae and genetically engineering hardier coral strains to deploying underwater fans and overhead sun screens to shield the remaining reefs.

“All these good intentions have been a bit misguided,” said Tiffany Morrison, a professor at the ARC Center for Coral Reef Studies at James Cook University in Queensland, Australia, and the lead author of the Nature commentary. “We actually need to take a much more sensible, in fact, common-sense approach really to deal with these issues.”

That strategy would require new governance structures to manage the catchment for the benefit of terrestrial and marine ecosystems – a tall order given that both of Australia’s major political parties have supported the expansion of coal mines near the Great Barrier Reef.

Still, Morrison pointed out, the “ecological grief” experienced by people over the probable demise of one of the world’s greatest natural wonders has created “a social and political mandate in a way there wasn’t even five years ago.”

Familiar Refrains

Scientists and climate advocates are greeting the findings of the new IPCC report by doubling down on many of the messages they’ve offered since the series of increasingly alarming reports began last October. Getting a handle on slowing the effects detailed in the report obviously starts with slowing carbon emissions, but there are also renewed calls for international banks to finance massive changes in global transportation, as well as scientists cajoling their colleagues to speak out clearly on what the data says.

Oceanographer Francisco Chavez was part of a team that discovered a link between terrestrial and ocean health when they found that carbon emissions from Silicon Valley and the adjacent Salinas Valley were being blown over a mountain pass and acidifying the nearshore waters of the ecologically rich Monterey Bay.

Data collected by sensor arrays deployed in the bay suggests that around 20 percent of the carbon absorbed near the shore originated regionally, “indicating a potentially large impact on ocean acidification in productive coastal waters,” said a study Chavez coauthored in March.

“Cleaning up local air pollution will help on a wide variety of fronts, including improving human health and ocean health,” said Chavez, a senior scientist at the Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute in California. “It can be sold on a wider basis than just reducing coastal acidification.”

For Torsten Thiele, founder of the Global Oceans Trust, the ocean climate crisis detailed in the IPCC report demands the creation of international institutions like those built in the 1940s to fund reconstruction of areas devastated during World War II.

Thiele has advocated for the establishment of an Ocean Sustainability Bank as a public-private partnership to finance large-scale projects to reduce, say, carbon emissions from the global shipping industry or to monetize the restoration of mangroves to sequester carbon and protect shorelines. “Finance is a key tool,” Thiele said.

Morrison of James Cook University expects the IPCC report to further galvanize marine scientists to speak out — a development she welcomes. She firmly believes the research community should pressure governments to take action.

“There has been a culture within science that you can’t have an opinion on anything because you’re supposed to be objective or you’ll lose funding,” she told Grist. “This is more important than anyone’s individual career.”

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  1. Geo

    After unprecedented back-to-back marine heat waves in 2016 and 2017 killed off half the Great Barrier Reef’s corals, a slew of solutions were proposed, from dispatching robots to disperse coral larvae and genetically engineering hardier coral strains to deploying underwater fans and overhead sun screens to shield the remaining reefs.

    “All these good intentions have been a bit misguided,” said Tiffany Morrison

    Robots, underwater fans, and sunscreen? I’m a big fan of creative thinking but whoever thought those were legitimate ideas should be given a pat on the back and sent home. Thankfully the saner minds as prevailing according to this article.

    Though, if they need capital investment maybe pitching to SoftBank the idea for giant robots armed with fans and sunscreen canons is a smart way to go considering the billions flushed away daily on Silicon Valley fever dreams. I’ll bet tech investors would get revved up for such an innovative and disruptive endeavor!

    Then just launder the money into actual beneficial efforts. They won’t even notice one more boondoggle gone awry for them at this point. And, if they ask just give them a toy robot from WalMart and tell them it’s a prototype but we need a few billion more to complete the working full-size army of them.

    1. tegnost

      Robots, underwater fans, and sunscreen

      It makes more sense to think of some (most?) of these save the world technologies as grifting opportunities. So called visionary fundraisers that lure investments in their unproven and commonly unworkable inventions that can be sold as saviors, but are in reality no more profitable or sustainable than uber and rely entirely on separating investors from their money, initially, then on governments paying defense contractor margins for the tech and cashing out. Buyer beware. There’s probably a guy in NYC right now in a conference room with a few people who have to put all that money somewhere. Yeah, Self swimming robots in the ocean…Got it. Just don’t do it like these people, think of the labor cost

  2. Carla

    “Thiele has advocated for the establishment of an Ocean Sustainability Bank as a public-private partnership to finance large-scale projects to reduce, say, carbon emissions from the global shipping industry or to monetize the restoration of mangroves to sequester carbon and protect shorelines. “Finance is a key tool,” Thiele said.”

    NO. Uh-uh. PPP’s are toxic. Finance is a mortal threat to the planet.

    Somebody better stop Thiele. “International institutions” must be built by governments, not by the multi-national corporations that created this mess. Have we learned absolutely nothing?

    1. Susan the other`

      I actually Thiele is onto something very important. I was surprised to see someone make this assertion – that finance is the key. I do believe this. First I thought, well, finance is all about profits, but since 2008 we have proved that this is nonsense – finance can carry on through all sorts of contradictory situations. The resilience of finance is us. Carry that thought out and it becomes We are Finance. If we decide money should be spent on the environment we can do it. Just ask the Fed. This article made me almost sick, but one good thing it gave me was a reaffirmation of how many, how very many, good scientists, good environmentalists, we have on this planet. We should follow their lead and finance them at every possible opportunity. Just do it. And if some nitwit insists we balance the budget and impose austerity on the environment, we should make them walk that absurd tightrope.

  3. Rod

    Again, today, at hundreds of places worldwide people will be in the street trying to wake the public up to the reality of Climate Change.
    This should not be dismissed casually.

  4. doug

    The ocean will be there. We won’t. We need to work on saving humans….The earth and her oceans will be here long after us.

    1. tegnost

      yeah, nature bats last…sad that we view corporations as people but nature, not so much… I suspect she’s developing an attitude and will dispense with us shortly. Hell hath no fury and all…

    2. jrs

      I don’t get the need to repeat this platitude, and it gets used a lot, maybe some find it comforting? “Oh at least the oceans will still be there”. Ok whatever gets you through the night, however, there is no guarantee that most LIFE in the OCEANS will survive (not just about human life surviving). But the water will still be there I guess.

    3. rd

      Oceans change. I strongly recommend reading The Ends of the World by Peter Brannen which looks at the really big extinctions.

      Most of them involve large carbon dioxide emissions into the atmosphere usually combined with one or two other things. The oceans generally require several million years or so to recover back to a productive ecosystem after the tipping point happened. The end of Triassic beginning of Jurassic period appears to be of a scale of CO2 release similar to what is going on as we burn the carbon sequestered in the Carboniferous (coal) and Permian (oil) ages.

      The key is the rate of carbon dioxide release to the atmosphere more than the total quantity. Chemical weathering of soils and rocks on land along with plant use of CO2 takes a lot of CO2 out of the atmosphere but the rate can only be increased so much in a short time. Similarly, the various sea critters that ultimately form limestone and coral reefs also convert CO2 into calcium carbonate but there is a limit to the rate at which the oceans can do this. Once those systems are overwhelmed, then the carbon dioxide starts turning into non-bioavailable bicarbonate as well as acidifying the ocean water which kills the critters that sequester calcium carbonate and the excess CO2 in the atmosphere heats up the planet as a greenhouse gas.which further disrupts ecosystems and causes extinctions.

    4. Massinissa

      We’re looking at the possibility of another 90% ocean dieoff like in the Permian era. And you’re like, “Oh, the oceans will be fine.” Do you really think Coral is the only thing in the ocean facing a mass dieoff and possible extinction in the short term? This is pure hubris, and is essentially another type of denialism of humanity’s impact on the earth even if you accept climatic change.

  5. TG

    Just remember, saving the oceans is important – but not as important as jamming in ever more billions of people so that the rich can have cheap labor and economic growth for the sake of economic growth (that does not benefit the average person). That’s critical.

    Japan looks to reduce it’s population to perhaps 70 million by the next century – still quite densely populated, still more than enough people for all practical purposes, and for those who say that this is terrible, well, go to Japan, and go to Pakistan, and tell me with a straight face that a limited fertility rate is a bad thing. And this will significantly reduce the environmental impact of Japan on the oceans. But this cannot be allowed. The Japanese are SELFISH. The Japanese simply MUST have more babies, or if they refuse, their choice must be disallowed and the population forced upwards by flooding the country with the surplus labor of the overpopulated third world (which will not reduce the population of the third world, as these places are already pushing up against their limits). And if despite a falling standard of living, the environmental impact of a Japan with hundreds of millions of people goes up significantly, well that’s the fault of the Japanese people for selfishly not sprinkling magic green pixie dust on everything.

    Population growth, and especially government policies that are encouraging excessive population growth, are the main event. If we refuse to address this issue as the major factor, because of all the propaganda and pressure of the cheap-labor-loving elites, we are fooling ourselves. In that case we might as well just enjoy the party as long as it lasts.

  6. T

    Thanks for this post. And this is all based on very limited data – things could be much worse.

    We have barely mapped the oceans, we have few ideas about repairing the damage we have done.

    1. Anon

      You’re right about the mapping of the oceans. However, the chemical and biological processes that occur in the oceans are known, generally. And the ocean ecology is likely to get worse, especially in the continental shelf zone which produces much of the ocean productivity that humans benefit from.

      This latest report on the state of the Oceans and the connection with land-based impacts is welcomed. For years, NC readers have been exposed to the role of the oceans in masking global warming. The latent heat capacity of water is astounding; until it returns the favor in the form of devastating/massive hurricanes, sustained rainfall events causing more frequent major flooding, or the loss of coastal fisheries (food and jawbs).

  7. Tom Pfotzer

    I’m not lacking motivation or awareness re: climate change.

    I’m lacking the tools, products, services and knowledge I need in order to fix the planet as I conduct my human affairs.

    I’m doing it partway now. I need to do a whole lot more. But most of what I need to get the job done either doesn’t exist, or is waaaaayyyy too expensive (needs econ of scale and better tech) to be affordable.

    1. drumlin woodchuckles

      Some tools, products , services and knowledge enabling individuals to slow the rate of their personal contribution to breaking the planet may already exist but known only to some . . . not to you, not to me, not to most.

      If those few who knew of such products, services, tools and knowledge about planet not-breaking were to bring their knowledge here, others could see it and use it.

      Enough millions of people seeing eachother see eachother learn and use that knowledge might become a civil society sub-culture self-aware enough to support a movement to conquer various nodes of concentrated power and use their conquered nodes-of-power to force planet de-breaking policies, infrastructure, social-cultural re-engineering, etc. into existence.

      That’s my TOC ( Theory Of Change) and I’m sticking to it.

  8. Nicholas Hazen

    Humans will simply be the latest in a long line of extinctions and you know, planet Earth will get along just fine without us.

  9. drumlin woodchuckles

    “There has been a culture within science that you can’t have an opinion on anything because you’re supposed to be objective or you’ll lose funding,” she told Grist. “This is more important than anyone’s individual career.”

    Unfortunately, in today’s No Money = You Die society, anyone losing their individual career risks losing all their money and then dying. That includes scientists.

    If the BrotherSisterhood Of Science wants any one individual scientist to risk herm’s physical survival by risking herm’s career over some scientific truth, then the BrotherSisterhood Of Science will have to set up a Career-Suicided Scientist Support Fund, so that the truth-telling Scientist who suicides herm’s own career by telling truth won’t run out of money, run out of food and die.

  10. Winston Smith

    For the old hands who remember the movie “soylent green”, the oceans dying is what leads humanity to cannibalize itself. The opening credits are scary in today’s context

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