What if the Ocean Dies?

A slow motion ‘death march’ is already well underway.

The following excerpt is taken from an interview with Dr. Alex Rogers, professor, University of Cambridge and Scientific Director, International Programme on the State of the Ocean:

The change we’re seeing at the moment is taking place extremely rapidly… We’re seeing levels of pH [a measure of acidity] in the ocean that probably haven’t been experienced for 55 million years… I find it very difficult to tell people what a scary situation we’re in at the moment. The oceans are changing in a huge way, and I am particularly worried for my grandchildren. The changes we thought would happen in the future… We’re actually seeing them now.

The ocean is the lifeblood of the world, and the survival of humanity is inextricably linked to its health. According to the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (“IPSO”), the “Global State of the Ocean Report” is due to be published soon in 2013, but according to IPSO: “We already know that the ocean’s health is in a critical state.”

The ocean (1) creates more than half of our oxygen; (2) it drives weather systems; (3) it modulates the atmosphere, and (4) it provides vital resources. As it happens, the ocean transcends national borders to maintain life everywhere on Earth. Yet, lamentably, the ocean is used and abused like a local trash dump on the edge of town, circa 1950s. And, connecting the dots of  (1) ocean health or (2) ocean degradation and (3) survival of humanity is an exercise easily accomplished because the dots seamlessly connect all the way around the planet.

In the words of Philippe Cousteau: “The effects of climate change, pollution and over-fishing should be making headlines because the ocean and all of us – and I literally mean all humankind – who depend on its resources are facing the very real prospect of the catastrophic collapse of ocean ecosystems if we continue on our current course.” ((Oceans: Environmental Victim or Savior? by Philippe Cousteau, Special to CNN, March 27, 2013.))

Those words by Philippe Cousteau, who has committed his life to studying oceans, and whose father, Jacques, dedicated his entire life to underwater research, should be all we need to know, or as he says, “facing the very real prospect of the catastrophic collapse of ocean ecosystems,” to understand the seriousness of the health of the ocean, and this should prompt us to husband this most precious resource. But, based upon the facts, such is not the case… it’s not even close.

As far as that goes, here’s what Philippe Cousteau has to say:

The situation is now so severe that we are altering the chemistry of the ocean, with significant impacts on marine life and the functioning of marine ecosystems.

What a strange twist of fate with extraordinary people who care enough about the health of the ocean to dedicate their lives to its research, extraordinary people, like Philippe Cousteau, who see the dying coral reefs up close, but, on the other hand, life goes on and ordinary people burn fossil fuels, in turn, acidifying the ocean, choosing the easiest way to source energy by pumping fossil fuels out of the ground rather than committing to the extra costs of renewables (a perfected technology), which does not acidify the ocean.

At the end of the day, history remembers the extraordinary people but forgets the ordinary people. As such, the Cousteau name will pass on for generations to come but whether there will be generations to come is one of the mysteries locked in the ocean.

Altering the Chemistry of the Ocean

The alteration of the chemistry of the ocean that Philippe Cousteau refers to is explained in the simplest of terms by The American Museum of Natural History: “For the ocean, climate change is more than a matter of temperature: about 30 percent of the CO2 released by human activities over the past 200 years has already been absorbed by the ocean, and much more will ultimately end up there. And all that CO2 is having an unfortunate effect: the ocean is ‘acidifying,’ or becoming less basic.” ((Changing Ocean Chemistry, The American Museum of Natural History.))

“Becoming less basic” means that not only does acidity in the ocean adversely affect (dissolve) the skeletal structure of marine life, leading to a deathly disruption of the food chain, but it has also already destroyed 20% of all coral reefs with another 50% on the verge of total collapse. As it goes, (1) nine million marine species depend upon coral reefs for food and shelter and (2) reefs support fishing and (3) tourism for countries around the world and (4) reefs protect coastlines from storm surges.

The net economic benefit to the world from coral ecosystems is $30 billion/year, including tourism, coastal protection, fisheries, and biodiversity. As for one example, the economic importance of Hawaii’s coral reefs, including recreational, fishery and biodiversity is $360 million/year.  ((National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, U.S. Department of Commerce.))

Worldwide, the total value of fisheries, including secondary industries like boat manufacturing or canning, is more than $250 billion. Worldwide fishing enterprises employ 200 million people and one billion people depend upon fish as their primary source of protein. But, in the final analysis, statistics are meaningless because statistics are only numbers, not life or death.

As an aside, the Great Pacific Garbage Patch (part of the Pacific Ocean) is believed to measure at least 270,000 square miles, but it may be as big as the continental U.S.; nobody knows for sure.  It is loaded with junk and partially dissolved bits of plastic, but mostly it holds “bits of plastic.” The Scripps Institution of Oceanography did an analysis a few years ago and found large quantities of bits of plastic debris in 100 consecutive samples along a distance of 1,700 miles through the center of the Garbage Patch. Here’s the problem: mistakenly, marine life and birds assume that the shreds of plastic are plankton or fish eggs. They ingest the plastic along with the plankton and fish eggs, with dire consequences.

When is too much too much?

According to Dr. Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (“IPSO”): “We’re seeing changes in the oceans really driven at an extraordinary pace.” The rate of increase of carbon dioxide concentrations in the atmosphere is “… much higher than what we’ve seen in the geological past, and it’s certainly much higher than what we saw with the last significant extinction event on Earth.” ((Pollution and Climate Change Accelerate Ocean Degradation (The World’s Oceans appear to be Headed to a New Mass Extinction Event), by Nathanial Gronewold, Scientific American, June 22, 2011.))

Dr. Rogers says the rate at which CO2 is absorbed in the oceans is now higher than it was 55 million years ago when up to 50% of deep-sea species became extinct. Additionally, researchers have recorded increasing rates of ocean hypoxia, which is low oxygen levels, and they’ve recorded dead zones that are growing in size caused by agricultural pollution.

Impending Collapse of the ‘Food Chain’

The world’s oceans are warmer now than at any time in the last 50 years, and combined with acidification, this toxic soup is almost certain to change ocean life in the most negative ways imaginable.

According to, “Acid Test – The Global Challenger of Ocean Acidification,” Natural Defense Resource Council -a Film- Narrator: Sigourney Weaver, interviewing Ken Caldeira, Ph.D. (Carnegie Institution-Department of Global Ecology), who with Michael Wickett coined the term ‘ocean acidification’:

Already, we’re seeing water showing up off the coast of Northern California that’s acidic enough to start actually dissolving sea shells… We are in the last decades of coral reefs on this planet unless we do something very soon to reduce CO2 emissions. We’re moving from a world of rich biological diversity into essentially a world of weeds.

As for the problem of dissolving seashells, pteropods, a tiny, free-swimming snail, play a significant role in the food chain, and they are losing their ability to reproduce (which they do by the billions) and mature because of acidification. According to Victoria J. Fabry, Professor of Biological Sciences, California State University of San Marcos and Visiting Scientist at USCD Scripps Institution of Oceanography, upon retrieving and analyzing pteropods from the seas surrounding Antarctica, she found “the thinnest shell I’ve ever seen.”

Moreover, in a scientific abstract by N. Bednarsek, G.A. Tarling, D.C.E. Bakker, et al in Nature Geoscience, d/d August 20, 2012, Extensive Dissolution of Live Pteropods in the Southern Ocean: “…under a scanning electron microscope, we found severe levels of shell dissolution….” The abstract states: “The carbonate chemistry of the surface ocean is rapidly changing with ocean acidification, a result of human activities.” As such, pteropods are losing their ability to reproduce and mature.

Pteropods are planktonic free-swimming snails that are an important component of the food chain and one of the primary food sources for everything from krill to large whales. If ocean acidification takes out pteropods, the food chain, in no small part, is broken. Alas, this is somewhat similar to the pathway taken by a pre-historic, pre-pteropod scenario, the “Great Dying”, a massive (90%) extinction event millions upon millions of years ago. But, as of today, pteropod shell dissolution is already happening. Now, the overriding, and most pertinent, question is: How quickly?

What To Do?

National Geographic magazine has a list of ten (10) things individuals can do to save the ocean, for example, No. 1 is: “Mind Your Carbon Footprint and Reduce Energy Consumption” – (a) leave the car at home whenever possible, (b) be conscious of energy use at home and at work, (c) switch to compact fluorescent light bulbs, (d) take the stairs, and (e) bundle up or use a fan to avoid oversetting the thermostat.

The National Geographic list of helpful hints is wonderful; however, and even though individual small steps are important to the aggregate, the big impact or the real solution is: Get off fossil fuels as soon as possible.

The odds of this happening are nearly zero.

Both of the major U.S. political parties are gloating over upcoming “American Energy Independence” as the result of the use of hydraulic fracking recovery techniques for oil and gas whereby they utilize extreme high pressure to forcibly inject a concoction of fluids containing toxic carcinogenic chemicals underground.


Robert Hunziker (MA, economic history, DePaul University) is a freelance writer and environmental journalist whose articles have been translated into foreign languages and appeared in over 50 journals, magazines, and sites worldwide. He can be contacted at: rlhunziker@gmail.com. Read other articles by Robert.