Life or Death in the Open Seas

“The next mass extinction may have already begun.” — IPSO

The International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) State of the Ocean Report d/d October 3, 2013 was released this week. The accompanying IPSO press release states: “Latest Review of Science Reveals Ocean in Critical State from Cumulative Impacts.”

Considering the conservative bias of scientists, who require nearly 100% proof before making definitive statements, “Critical State” is not good news, and as stated in the report, the bad news extends across all spectrum of marine life, starting at the base of the food chain, marine phytoplankton.

Most phytoplankton are invisible to the naked eye. These mysterious creatures, of which there are 5,000 known species, sustain the aquatic food web, and they are responsible for half of the Earth’s oxygen. Every other breath you take comes from these wondrous organisms.

“The relentless consumption of fossil fuels is forcing carbon dioxide (CO2) into the oceans… driving a steady decrease in seawater pH often termed ocean acidification. Marine phytoplankton can be sensitive to the rising partial pressure of CO2 and lowered pH… Only of late, however, have oceanographers begun to examine how these … trends will affect the phytoplankton species that cause ecosystem-damaging toxic algal blooms… destructive harmful bloom species are diatoms of the genus Pseudo-nitzschia… producing the potent toxin domoic acid… the agent of Amnesic Shellfish Poisoning, which causes illness or mortality in humans, marine animals, and seabirds… Extremely elevated levels of domoic acid have recently been reported from Pseudo-nitzschia blooms in coastal waters of Southern California.” ((Abstract Citation: Tatters, A.O., et al., High CO2 and Silicate Limitation Synergistically Increase the Toxicity of Pseudo-nitzschia fraudulenta, PloS One, 7(2), Feb. 21, 2012.))

A 2010 study by Dalhousie University in Canada, published in Nature, found a substantial decline in phytoplankton, estimated at 40% since 1950. However, the scientific community critiqued that report as too aggressive.

More recently, and in concert with the continual warming up of the open seas, studies analyzing 1.5 million plankton DNA sequences show temperatures play a critical role in the chemical cycles of these organisms, namely, altering the organisms by changing the natural cycles of carbon dioxide, nitrogen, and phosphorous. This negatively affects the plankton, making them scarce, and thus, impacting life all the way up the food chain. ((A. Toseland, et al., The Impact of Temperature on Marine Phytoplankton Resource Allocation and Metabolism, Nature, 2013.))

As it goes, scientists are able to measure the ocean temperature more accurately today than ever before from data provided by over 3,000 Argo Floats (Est. in 2000) strategically placed in oceans around the world. The results: The ocean is absorbing a lot of heat, and as such, it is heating up, but heat is only one part of this multifold complexity of life or death.

Such as, the long list of problems begins with ocean acidification, a direct result of burning fossil fuels. According to C.L.Dybas, this acidification is occurring at a rate [10-to-100] times faster [depending upon the area] than ever recorded, with some estimates that by the end of the 21st century, the surface waters in some areas of the ocean may not be able to support shell-bearing plankton. ((On a Collision Course: Oceans Plankton and Climate Change, BioScience, 2006.))

Along these lines, the 2007 IPCC report stated that even with significant CO2 reductions, the pH of the oceans would still decrease; however, without any reduction in CO2 emissions, pH is expected to decrease another 0.35 units, which is too low for some plankton to form shells. ((R. Alley, et al., Climate Change 2007: The Physical Science Basis, Summary for Policymakers, 2007, Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change. ))

State of the Ocean Report d/d October 3, 2013

According to the International Programme on the State of the Ocean, “This [acidification] of the ocean is unprecedented in the Earth’s known history. We are entering an unknown territory of marine ecosystem change… The next mass extinction may have already begun.”

The IPSO report claims coral is especially at risk because acidity dissolves calcium carbonate skeletons, which create reef structure. As well, increasing warmth leads to bleaching, causing corals to lose symbiotic algae. The report claims current governmental plans to cut emissions do not go far enough, nor fast enough, to save the world’s reefs.

Additional disheartening news from the IPSO report states that the carbon dioxide absorbed by the seas is worse than mentioned by the world’s top scientists in the recently released IPCC report. ((September 2013, IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel of Climate Change) AR5.))

Wherefore, IPSO says the world’s oceans, by absorbing carbon and heat from the atmosphere, have shielded or slowed the rate of climate change on land. Accordingly, to a large extent, the potential harm associated with climate change has been hidden underwater.

Status of Marine Life

Ocean acidification is as deadly to oceans as Fukushima (the Japanese on-going nightmare of radioactive spills) is to its surrounding land, and the ocean. Acidification diminishes development, i.e., growth and reproduction, of coral reefs, shellfish and plankton.

According to Jane Luchenco, former director of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the effects of acidification are already present in some oyster fisheries, like the West Coast of the U.S. According to Luchenco, “You can actually see this happening… It’s not something a long way into the future. It is a very big problem.” ((Fiona Harvey, Ocean Acidification due to Carbon Emissions is at Highest for 300M Years, The Guardian, Oct. 2, 2013.))

Ninety percent (90%) of all life on the planet is in the ocean, a body of water so vast that scientists are only beginning to grasp the full extent of anthropogenic-caused degradation as a result of burning fossil fuels, and in that regard, the recently released IPSO report clearly signals a bold-lettered S-O-S to the world to slow down, and halt, CO2 emissions or risk ocean extinction.

The impending extinction problem is not only a result, primarily, of coal-burning electric utilities saturating the atmosphere with CO2. As well, over-fishing is a very, very serious problem. As for one recent example, the Baiji White Dolphin became a victim in the 21st century. Baijis are freshwater dolphin known to be extremely intelligent and native to the Yangtze River but over-fishing killed them all. They are now extinct.

Following a six-week expedition to find the Baiji in 2006, researchers came up empty-handed. Lamentably, since ancient times, Baijis were a part of the Yangtze River system.

National Geographic claims the following marine life are currently at the highest risk of extinction: Bluefin Tuna, Dugong, Leatherback Turtle, Sawfish, Humphead Wrasse, Polar Bears, Whale Shark (ocean’s largest fish), Manatees, Hawksbill Turtle. Over-fishing, hunting, sport, or rapidly changing conditions in ecosystems threatens all of these.

Dr. Alex Rogers, Scientific Director of IPSO and professor of Conservation Biology at the Department of Zoology, University of Oxford, says: “Climate Change affects are going to be extremely serious, and it’s interesting when you think many people who talk about this in terms of what will happen in the future… our children will see the effects of this. Well, actually we’re seeing very severe impacts from climate change already… We’re already there.” ((Source: State of the, Video Interview, Dr. Alex Rogers.))

Accelerating CO2

According to the Scripps Institution of Oceanography, CO2 emissions are accelerating. The past decade has seen a 23.5% increase in average annual CO2 emissions over the prior decade. Looking ahead, this rate of increase is almost destined to increase because, according to the World Resources Institute, across the globe, 1,200 new coal-fired plants are on the drawing boards.

How many solar-powered plants are on the drawing boards? Nobody is counting.

As the world turns, excessive levels of CO2 increasingly poison the ocean day-by-day, hour-by-hour without missing a beat, and in this regard, it is important to realize that an extinction event is merely an option. It does not have to happen. Nevertheless, the overwhelmingly powerful influence of fossil fuel interests, and their concomitant worldwide infrastructure devoted to the production of coal, oil, and gas, almost guarantees no way out.

Postscript: Some Good News

Bernhard Beck, CEO of Belectric (Germany), which specializes in utility-scale solar power, says large scale solar is already approaching the costs of conventional power, and he predicts solar costs will fall below conventional costs. Since 2001, Belectric, has installed solar power worldwide, supplying over one million people with solar powered electricity.

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: Read other articles by Robert.