In 2008, the United Nations officially recognized June 8 as World Ocean Day, the day each year we would celebrate the significance of our oceans. Throughout the world, public events are conducted to foster public interest in the management of the oceans and its resources. Like Earth Day (April 22) it is a good time to take stock of how important our oceans are to the well being of our planet and its people and assess how they are doing.
So, how are the oceans doing? According to a report published in September 2019, compiled by more than 100 international experts and based on more than 7,000 studies, “not too good, and getting worse”.
Climate change is heating the oceans and altering their chemistry so dramatically that it is threatening seafood supplies, fueling cyclones and floods, and posing profound risks to the hundreds of millions of people living along the coasts. The oceans provide a crucial buffer against global warming by soaking up roughly a quarter of the carbon dioxide that humans emit from power plants, factories and cars, and absorbing more than 90 percent of the excess heat trapped on Earth by carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases. Without that protection, our world would be heating much more rapidly.
But our oceans are losing the battle and are becoming hotter, more acidic and less oxygen-rich as a result. According to the report, if we keep pumping greenhouse gases into the atmosphere like we’re doing, the amount of fish that can be sustainably caught will decrease by as much as a quarter by the end of the century. Currently fish and seafood provide about 17% of the world’s animal protein and millions of people worldwide depend on fishing economies for their way of life.
Like our rain forests, oceans are working hard to combat the effects of global warming, in addition to feeding us. But without changes in the way we live, oceans will become less and less effective, continuing the downward spiral on our ability to survive on our planet.
The past 10 years have been the warmest 10 on record for global ocean temperatures. 2019 set a record as the highest; 2018 is second; 2017 is third; 2015 is fourth; and then 2016 is fifth. The increase between 2018 and 2019 was the largest single-year increase since the early 2000s. Clearly, not a good trend.
What can we do to save our oceans? For a start, we could dramatically reduce our CO2 emissions. The science is there (see Climate Change 101) and the ways to accomplish this are within our capabilities (see Can We Stop the Fire). And as individuals, we can make a difference (see Moderate To Perpetuate). We know what needs to be done; we just need the willingness as a society to do it.
The other thing we can do is stop dumping plastics and other trash into the ocean. Plastics are particularly a problem since they do not decompose but instead are consumed by fish and make their way into our food. One area in the Pacific Ocean between California and Hawaii referred to as the ‘Great Pacific Garbage Patch’ is ballooning, and is estimated to contains 87,000 tons of plastic bottles, children’s toys, broken electronics, abandoned fishing nets and millions more fragments of debris – all floating in the water and growing.
What can we do about this? Stop consuming plastics (see Refuse and Reuse) . If every time we picked up a plastic bag, we imagined it was covered with the Covid-19 virus, we wouldn’t pick it up. There are so many practical alternatives to so many plastic products but they won’t make any difference if they aren’t used by more of us.
One last thought about our oceans. As our planet continues to warm, the ice at our polar caps will continue to melt, increasing the sea levels. Worldwide, an estimated 600 million people live directly on the world’s coastlines and are immediately vulnerable. For example the Pacific Ocean has risen 4 to 8 inches along the Northern California shore over the last century — including San Francisco Bay, the ocean’s largest estuary in the Americas. Depending on the growth of greenhouse gas emissions, the Pacific could rise 2.4 to 3.4 feet by 2100. This realization is causing the city government to start planning for the future, either by fortifying their flood defenses, restoring wetlands, or, in some instances, making people move. The costs to address rising sea levels are significant. In San Francisco, voters have approved a $425 million bond measure to fund a sea wall at the Embarcadero as well as $587 million for a makeover, including water pumps at the San Francisco airport.
Bottom line, our oceans are critical to our survival as a species and unless we alter our behaviors, they won’t be able to save us much longer. Let’s hope by next year’s World Ocean Day, the answer to the question of how are the oceans doing will be “not so good, but getting better”.