The Ocean is Broken, But We May Be Able to Fix It

Pale octopus found in the Southern Ocean Photograph: Oxford University/PA

Pale octopus found in the Southern Ocean Photograph: Oxford University/PA

My mid-life crisis isn’t working out the way it’s supposed to. Rather than spending it on cabana boys named “Cocoa” or face creams made from Lake Retba mud minerals, I’ve been on a sort of educational walkabout, joining book clubs and trying to forge a more purposeful existence, or something approximating one. Oh and I enjoy a nice cocktail with friends from time to time.As I’ve entered the latter side of forty, all of my book club reading steers me to think about certain things. For instance, because of Callum Roberts’ The Ocean of Life, among other texts, I’ve grown to think about oceans & environment in relation to a sort of yin-yang principle. For every bit of light, there is also dark serving as a backdrop to illuminate it.

In other words, the proverbial glass is both half empty and half full simultaneously. This makes it tougher for us to either tell ourselves that “everything is going to be a-okay because we’re doing what we can” OR that “we’re already screwed, so we might as well just dump all our garbage down a storm drain and forget about it.” Both proclamations are likely true; the issue just may be to what extent? What’s in balance and what is not, and what can be shifted to to get the bubble back in the middle of the level?

Let’s start by addressing the dark side.

So, the bad news is (get ready for it), “The Ocean is Broken.” It’s not a shocker. Marine scientists have sounded sirens for years now about “losses that are permanent.” Sylvia Earle says that in the past 50 years, we’ve lost 20% of the ocean’s coral reefs and 80% of reefs in the Caribbean. Science writer Gaia Vince asserts: “Coral reefs are on track to be the first of the world’s ecosystems to be entirely wiped out by humans . . . Some scientists estimate that reefs will have disappeared as soon as 2050.”

Over the past 70 years, thanks to warming waters and acidification, we’ve lost 40% of Earth’s phytoplankton, which supplies between 50-90% of the world’s oxygen.”

And in the aforementioned October 2013 Greg Ray article for The Herald, yachtsman and fisherman, Ian MacFayden recalls sailing the Pacific from Japan:

“We hardly saw any living things. We saw one whale, sort of rolling helplessly on the surface with what looked like a big tumour on its head. I’ve done a lot of miles on the ocean in my life and I’m used to seeing turtles, dolphins, sharks and big flurries of feeding birds. But this time, for 3,000 nautical miles there was nothing alive to be seen.”

Macfadyen partly attributes this change to the “astounding volumes of garbage” and debris swept out to sea during the 2011 Japanese tsunami.

American academic researchers tried to recruit him to help test objects for radioactivity, to which he responded, “Why don’t we push for a fleet to go and clean up the mess?” 

The researchers replied that “they’d calculated that the environmental damage from burning the fuel to do that job would be worse than just leaving the debris there.”


And then there’s climate change. Recent international studies using advanced climate models predict that “the weight of marine creatures lost in the next century is greater than the combined weight of every person on earth.” The North Atlantic will be the hardest hit with a 38% decline in deep sea organisms, but “over 80% of all identified key habitats – cold-water coral reefs, seamounts and canyons – will suffer losses in total biomass.”

This is largely because warming slows the circulation of seawater, which increases stratification. Food supplies grow trapped in upper layers of water and never make it to the deeper levels where the larger marine life dwells. Simultaneously, ocean acidification is causing life in the upper layers of water to diminish. This includes the aforementioned marine phytoplankton responsible for so much of the air we breathe.

Many a scientist, blogger, journalist, and concerned citizen has bellowed that “Governments are fiddling while the planet burns.” Disasters like the BP oil hemorrhage and Freedom Industries’ catastrophic 2014 chemical spill don’t help to contradict such hopeless surrenders, especially when these companies file Chapter 11 to help freeze payouts for liability suits.

But recent news suggests that some governments are heeding our pleas and have largely stopped burning fuels that burn the planet (and thus all of us).

offshore windAs University of Michigan religion professor, Juan Cole notes in his blog entry entitled “Birth of Hope: Top Ten Solar Energy Stories of 2013,” we are currently “dumping 32 metric tons of carbon dioxide, a dangerous greenhouse gas, into the atmosphere every year.” He continues by declaring a simple truth that the sooner we stop “doing that, the less severe the climate change calamity will be.” The point is that we *can* stop; we know how *to* stop, and some of us are *stopping.*

But it’s not just all “we are the world” altruism that’s driving this change. In many European nations, as solar, wind, and other renewable energy sources grow more available and affordable, fossil fuels grow less competitive . Natural gas is taking the biggest hit, with several nations enforcing bans against hydro-fracking, and furthermore, mass coal plant closures are already on the books for 2015.

Finland’s ahead of the game even there. Their “largest utility, Fortum, is closing a coal-fired power plant in Inkoo, west of Helsinki . . . built in the mid-1970s, the 750 MW plant has rarely been used in recent years, only supplying backup power to the Nordic grid during periods of peak demand. It has long been a loss-maker. This is partly due to falling electricity prices in Europe, driven by Germany’s shift toward renewable energy.”

And Scotland was not a nation I had typically associated with world leadership and progress, but their aim is to rely on renewable energy, namely hydro-power and wind, by 2020. Currently, these sources provide for 40% of their energy consumption, and they estimate that they’ll reach 50% by 2015. Scotland’s renewable energy sector also pays more than 11,000 salaries as of January 1, 2014 and is estimated to reach over 26,000 by 2035.

And just as the U.S. took ten to twenty years to catch up to Europe’s craze over skinny jeans and electronica music, I punk rock britainwould predict that it will take us just as long to catch up to them in this latest renewable energy space race. But investors and financial analysts are already seeing shifts in the unlikeliest of markets. A recent Credit Suisse report says that “85% of US energy demand growth will come from renewables by 2025.”

So, cataclysm may be upon us, but it looks like we’re sure slowing it down. Maybe all that wind is spinning the yin-yang snow globe back around, keeping the shadow side submerged a bit longer. But then, there all of those wind farm bird kills . . . Time to sip a Mai Tai and check out another book from the library.  


This entry was published on March 1, 2014 at 8:34 pm and is filed under Ocean Conservation. Bookmark the permalink. Follow any comments here with the RSS feed for this post.