What will happen to us when the oceans die?
- Published: 16 January 2010
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We are on the threshold of a major eco-system collapse, warns Captain Paul Watson.
During the second season’s Whale Wars episode where the Antarctic ice is buckling and stressing the hull of my ship, many of my crew and most of the general public that viewed the drama of our encounters with the ice were puzzled by my apparent lack of concern.
I had the situation under control of course so there was no need to be overly concerned beyond the usual concern and caution one must have when navigating in ice conditions in a remote area.
But what puzzled me is that so many people were concerned and shocked that my hull would breach while remaining oblivious to the stresses and strains on the bio-spherical hull of spaceship Earth.
The huge spherical ship that carries all of us through the black void of space is presently suffering severe stress and ecological engineers know that we have a very serious situation on our hands, so serious that it threatens the survival and thus the future of the entire human species.
It’s happening now. I’m not speculating about the distant future. The first crack in our global life support system is widening now and we are about to experience our first major systems failure.
We are on the threshold of the first major eco-system collapse of the Homocene.
The Homocene is the 6th major mass extinction event in the planet’s history. The last such extinction event was the Cretaceous–Tertiary extinction event which occurred 65 million years ago. That was the event that wiped out the dinosaurs. In the past 540 million years there have been five major events when over 50% of animal species died.
This one, the sixth, is called the Homocene because one species, our own, is responsible for this catastrophic event that will see more species of plants and animals go extinct between 2000 and 2065 than we have lost over the last sixty-Five million years.
This is a major disaster, greater than any war, Tsunami, earthquake or fire, yet to read the newspapers or to watch television, one would be hard pressed to see any sense of urgency or even great concern.
This week Charlie Veron, the former chief scientist of the Australian Institute of Marine Science stated, “There is no way out, no loopholes. The Great Barrier Reef will be over within 20 years or so.”
According to Veron, “Once carbon dioxide hits the levels predicted for between 2030 and 2060, all the world’s coral reefs will be doomed to extinction… They would be the world’s first global ecosystem to collapse. I have the backing of every coral reef scientist, every research organization. I’ve spoken to them all. This is critical. This is reality.”
Dr. Veron’s comments came as the Zoological Society of London, the Royal Society and the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO) held a crucial meeting on the future of coral reefs in London yesterday. In a joint statement, they warned that by mid-century extinctions of coral reefs around the world would be inevitable.
According to a report in the Times Online, Warming water causes coral polyps to eject the symbiotic algae that provide them with nutrients. These “bleaching events” were widespread during the El Niño of 1997-98, and localized occurrences are becoming more frequent. (During an El Niño, much of the tropical Pacific becomes unusually warm.) Reefs take decades to recover but by 2030 to 2050, depending on emissions and feedback effects, bleaching will be occurring annually or biannually.
Although surface sea temperatures are rising fastest in tropical regions the other big threat to coral reefs comes from the higher latitudes. The cold water there absorbs atmospheric carbon dioxide more readily than warm water and acidifies more easily.
When carbon dioxide concentrations reach between 480 and 500 parts per million, warm water is no barrier to acidification, and the pH in equatorial regions will have dropped so far, meaning higher acidity, that coral reef growth becomes impossible anywhere in the ocean.
“Coral reefs are the most sensitive of marine ecosystems,” said Alex Rogers, scientific director of IPSO.
“Increased temperature and decreased pH will have a double-whammy effect. Reefs were safe at CO2 levels of 350 parts per million. We are at 387ppm today. Beyond 450 the fate of corals is sealed,” he continued.
In the five mass extinction events in geological history, key was the carbon cycle, in which carbon dioxide is the primary currency. Its concentration in the atmosphere is higher than it has been for 20 million years. In the Permian extinction, as in all the big extinctions, tropical marine life was the hardest hit. Reef-building corals took more than ten million years to return.
The Great Barrier Reef, the world’s largest and most diverse marine ecosystem, is worth $4.5 billion (£2.8 billion) a year to Australia. Worldwide, reefs are worth $300 billion. “But that is trivial compared with the costs if coral reefs fail,” Dr Veron said. “Then it won’t be a matter of no income, it will be a matter of damage to livelihoods, economies and ecosystems.”
The announcement of the certain death of the world coral reef systems including the Great Barrier Reef was greeted with yawns and apathy by the media and the general public. Twenty years is far too long to capture the interests of politicians and with Jennifer Aniston looking to get back together with Brad Pitt, public concern is distracted.
The world mourns for the death of Michael Jackson but scarcely notices the impending death of the Great Barrier Reef and the millions of species that depend upon the reefs for survival.
As the poet Leonard Cohen once wrote, "we are locked into our suffering and our pleasures are the seal.”
As we entertain ourselves, the oceans and the planet are dying.
The prognosis is not good. With 90% of global fisheries wiped out already and with an irreversible coral reef system collapse occurring right now, the situation is dire, nearly hopeless.
But I have faith that we can resurrect the oceans, if only we can stop the destruction and stop it soon.
The cause of this imminent global eco-system collapse is some seven billion human beings sucking the life out of the oceans like lust-deranged vampires.
It is not a question of saying we should be doing all that is possible to save our oceans, but rather that we must do all that is possible or else. We no longer have a choice. Failure to act, failure to reverse the pattern has only one consequence – global eco-system collapse or to put it another way the complete failure of the life support system for space ship Earth.
The world is full of ecological fools who deny ecological reality. The world is full of mindless mobs of morons obsessed with petty trivialities or distracted by fantasies ranging from silly religions to entertainment.
What the world is lacking are ecological engineers and warriors ready and willing to address the threats to our planet and especially to our oceans.
What the great majority of people do not understand is this: unless we stop the degradation of our oceans, marine ecological systems will begin collapsing and when enough of them fail, the oceans will die.
And if the oceans die, then civilization collapses and we all die.
It’s as simple as that, and the choice is between committing mindless mass collective suicide i.e. the ultimate total homicide or standing up and fighting for survival.
One thing for certain however is that we are running out of time.
Captain Paul Watson is the head of the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society.