A Day at the Beach Won’t Be the Same If We Don’t Turn the Tide on Our Dying Oceans
Here it is late May again already, and some of you are probably perusing these pages as you celebrate Memorial Day weekend soaking up rays at the seashore. As much as I appreciate your readership, I urge you not to spend too much of your beach time reading—especially not this piece, which (spoiler alert) is likely to sink your spirits. Instead, invest your time in communing with the precious and delicate ocean before you. Gaze at it; splash in it; surf, snorkel or sail in it. Because, quite simply, there may not be many summers left to experience its life-giving wonders.
I’ve long enjoyed contemplating the ocean from the seat of a folding beach chair placed precariously at the water’s edge. In a contest we dubbed “chairfing,” my friends and I would vie to see who could stay anchored in the sand longest before an undertow toppled us one by one into the advancing tide. Our amusing game helped us connect with and better appreciate the intricate powers of the sea.
But nowadays I can’t go near a beach without feeling as if an undertow already has upended me. I become melancholy when I see my four great nephews (ages two to nine) frolicking in the surf or fishing from a boat. I wonder how much longer they will be able to enjoy the world’s oceans as I have. And I wonder how much time remains before the environmental collapse of the oceans imperils the existence of humanity altogether.
Although an agitated sea still can swallow an untrained swimmer in a quick gulp or capsize an entire ferryboat of people with one big wave, the oceans are rapidly losing their power to defend themselves from mankind. They are dying—and dying fast—according to a growing consensus of scientists.
In a recent interview with Bill Maher, Captain Paul Watson of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society, a 40-year-old marine eco-activist group, put it quite simply: “We don’t live on this planet with a dead ocean. If the oceans die, we die. It doesn’t matter whether you live in the Himalayas or in Colorado or in Los Angeles, it affects you. (The oceans) provide the very foundation of our existence.”
Watson cites United Nations research that predicts “all the world’s fisheries will collapse by 2048; [and many] coral reefs may be gone by 2025.” That’s just over a decade from now. If you doubt the UN’s claim, take a trip to the waters off South Florida where dead coral are increasingly commonplace.
“Coral reefs are incredibly important to ocean health,” Stephanie Wear, the Nature Conservancy’s coral expert, told Time magazine. “But if we don’t act, we could lose 70 percent of reefs worldwide by the middle of the century.”
The primary cause of the decaying reefs and failing seas is the “explosive increase in human CO2 emissions” and the resulting acidification and warming of the oceans, according to last year’s State of the Ocean Report, written by an international panel of marine scientists. In other words: manmade damage that is responsible for climate change.
Perhaps most alarming is the fact that as much as 85 percent of the oxygen supply we breathe comes from ocean plants called phytoplankton. If most of that oxygen disappears, as it may within the life spans of my great nephews, humanity will face extinction.
According to The State of the Ocean Report, “Current carbon perturbations will have huge implications for humans …Oxygen levels are dropping and ocean waters are acidifying at the fastest rate in at least 300 million years.”
At that time, long before the planet had to worry about the breathing needs of humans, massive “volcanic eruptions in Siberia triggered the release of enormous amounts of stored carbon,” the report explains. “A leading theory is that deoxygenation and acidification of the oceans led to the bacterial production of toxic hydrogen sulfide gas which poisoned species dependent on oxygen. By the end of this natural catastrophe, 90 to 95 percent of all marine species were extinct. The biodiversity of the oceans took 30 million years to recover.”
The new National Climate Assessment, a report released just this month by the US government, echoes many of the Ocean Report’s findings. Its research was conducted by a team of more than 300 experts guided by a 60-member Federal Advisory Committee and reviewed by a panel of the National Academy of Sciences. The report says, “The oceans are absorbing about a quarter of the carbon dioxide emitted to the atmosphere annually and are becoming more acidic as a result, leading to alterations in marine ecosystems. It is the simultaneous occurrence of the ‘deadly trio’ of acidification, warming, and deoxygenation that is seriously effecting how productive and efficient the ocean is…meaning that many organisms will find themselves in unsuitable environments.”
And that will have a huge effect on our food supply. Over a billion people depend on fish as their primary source of protein. But according to the UN report, “Thirty percent of fish stocks have already collapsed, and fishless oceans could be a very real possibility by 2050.”
By 2050? My great nephew Brayden, who loves to go ocean fishing with his father, would be only 44 years old that summer; his little brother Cole would be 38. The projections of the demise of our oceans are not for a far off time.
So, what can be done to stem the tide? At this late date it is going to take more than an anti-litter campaign or vows to eat fish from sustainable fisheries, though both are fine ideas. (Plundering of the ocean’s fish is a significant contributor to the decline of the seas. You can look online for directories of stores and restaurants that buy their seafood from sustainable fisheries.) To have a significant impact, people are going to have to band together in something of a worldwide “Act Up” network to demand that their governments address climate change and make saving the oceans a top priority.
A new report this month by The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) put it quite bluntly: “Overall, global greenhouse gas emissions—largely caused by burning coal, oil, and natural gas—need to be cut 40 to 70 percent by mid-century for humanity to face better than 50-50 odds of dodging the worst effects of global warming.” To achieve those goals, the report calls for at least a tripling of low carbon power sources such as nuclear, solar, or renewable energy around the world.
To have any realistic chances of success, the report also urges world leaders to move forward with new technologies that “effectively remove” carbon dioxide, the most significant of greenhouse gas, from the atmosphere.
However, given the way so many “pro-business” American politicians continue to decry climate change as a liberal lie spread to hurt corporate profitmaking, how likely is it that leaders of the still industrializing nations—especially China—can be persuaded to reduce emissions sufficiently to save the oceans? My fear is that, despite all the knowledge scientists have amassed and the best intentions of environmental activists, too many of the world’s most powerful players will continue to selfishly hide their heads in the sand. In which case we might as well begin apologizing to every kid we see on the beach this summer for the sorry state of the planet we’re leaving them.