Monday, August 07, 2006

The (un) eternal sea...

I've been meaning to write about this at length, in the context of some longer "ohmigod the world is going to hell, and I'm panicking" type post, but since I haven't gotten around to that yet, I want to call your attention to an excellent series in the Los Angeles Times about the dire condition of the earth's oceans. This is a five-part series, but a few graphs from the first article should give you an idea of just how serious this is — "sobering" doesn't begin to cover it:
MORETON BAY, AUSTRALIA — The fireweed began each spring as tufts of hairy growth and spread across the seafloor fast enough to cover a football field in an hour.

When fishermen touched it, their skin broke out in searing welts. Their lips blistered and peeled. Their eyes burned and swelled shut. Water that splashed from their nets spread the inflammation to their legs and torsos.

"It comes up like little boils," said Randolph Van Dyk, a fisherman whose powerful legs are pocked with scars. "At nighttime, you can feel them burning. I tried everything to get rid of them. Nothing worked."

As the weed blanketed miles of the bay over the last decade, it stained fishing nets a dark purple and left them coated with a powdery residue. When fishermen tried to shake it off the webbing, their throats constricted and they gasped for air...

...The venomous weed, known to scientists as Lyngbya majuscula, has appeared in at least a dozen other places around the globe. It is one of many symptoms of a virulent pox on the world's oceans.

In many places — the atolls of the Pacific, the shrimp beds of the Eastern Seaboard, the fiords of Norway — some of the most advanced forms of ocean life are struggling to survive while the most primitive are thriving and spreading. Fish, corals and marine mammals are dying while algae, bacteria and jellyfish are growing unchecked. Where this pattern is most pronounced, scientists evoke a scenario of evolution running in reverse, returning to the primeval seas of hundreds of millions of years ago.

Jeremy B.C. Jackson, a marine ecologist and paleontologist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography in La Jolla, says we are witnessing "the rise of slime."

For many years, it was assumed that the oceans were too vast for humanity to damage in any lasting way. "Man marks the Earth with ruin," wrote the 19th century poet Lord Byron. "His control stops with the shore."

Even in modern times, when oil spills, chemical discharges and other industrial accidents heightened awareness of man's capacity to injure sea life, the damage was often regarded as temporary.

But over time, the accumulation of environmental pressures has altered the basic chemistry of the seas.

The causes are varied, but collectively they have made the ocean more hospitable to primitive organisms by putting too much food into the water.

Industrial society is overdosing the oceans with basic nutrients — the nitrogen, carbon, iron and phosphorous compounds that curl out of smokestacks and tailpipes, wash into the sea from fertilized lawns and cropland, seep out of septic tanks and gush from sewer pipes.

Modern industry and agriculture produce more fixed nitrogen — fertilizer, essentially — than all natural processes on land. Millions of tons of carbon dioxide and nitrogen oxide, produced by burning fossil fuels, enter the ocean every day.

These pollutants feed excessive growth of harmful algae and bacteria.

At the same time, overfishing and destruction of wetlands have diminished the competing sea life and natural buffers that once held the microbes and weeds in check.

The consequences are evident worldwide.
In addition, our ocean waters are becoming increasingly acidic — from the same causes as global warming:
Scientists estimate that nearly 500 billion tons of the gas have been absorbed by the oceans since the start of the Industrial Revolution. That is more than a fourth of all the CO2 that humanity has emitted into the atmosphere. Eventually, 80% of all human-generated carbon dioxide is expected to find its way into the sea.

Carbon dioxide moves freely between air and sea in a process known as molecular diffusion. The exchange occurs in a film of water at the surface. Carbon dioxide travels wherever concentrations are lowest. If levels in the atmosphere are high, the gas goes into the ocean. If they are higher in the sea, as they have been for much of the past, the gas leaves the water and enters the air.

If not for the CO2 pumped into the skies in the last century, more of the gas would leave the sea than would enter it.

"We have reversed that direction," said Ken Caldeira, an expert on ocean chemistry and carbon dioxide at the Carnegie Institution's department of global ecology, based at Stanford University...

...Scientists say the acidification of the oceans won't be arrested unless the output of CO2 from factories, power plants and automobiles is substantially reduced. Even now, the problem may be irreversible.

"One thing we know for certain is it's not going to be a good thing for the ocean," Barry said. "We just don't know how bad it will be."
I've had the sense for some time now that we are balanced on the edge of a precipice, in more ways than one. Poised at the brink of a region-wide Middle Eastern war, of economic collapse, of encroaching fascism, any number of worst-case scenarios, none of which are likely to improve as long as the current regime occupies the White House. But after reading things like this, it's no wonder to me that Al Gore has chosen to forego another presidential run and devote himself to fighting global warming. As horrific as our political and social problems are at present, just about everything tends to pale in the face of severe climate change, mass extinctions and the death of our oceans.

Real solutions will have to arise out of our sadly dysfunctional political systems and global diplomacy — and I don't expect much progress from the US government in the next couple of years (no wonder Ah-nuld's Kuh-lee-phone-eyuh and a number of states are raising their own internal standards and making separate deals with sovereign countries. California Uber Alles, baby!). In the meantime, we can at least spread the word. It's a small thing in the face of such staggering problems, but you have to start somewhere, I guess.

It's either that, or eat your jellyfish.

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