How bad are the oceans?

Posted on April 19th, 2015 in Climage Change,ecology,Environment by Robert Miller
Indonesian surfer Dede Surinaya catches a wave in a remote but garbage-covered bay on Java, Indonesia, the world’s most populated island ‘Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.’ Jacques-Yves Cousteau Photograph: Zak Noyle

Indonesian surfer Dede Surinaya catches a wave in a remote but garbage-covered bay on Java, Indonesia, the world’s most populated island
‘Water and air, the two essential fluids on which all life depends, have become global garbage cans.’ Jacques-Yves Cousteau
Photograph: Zak Noyle

If you are like me seeing this image, a surfer in “the pipe”, catching a wave full of garbage is as a repulsive an image as one might imagine—-but it does say a lot about how we are treating our oceans—-like  a vast, un-managed  garbage dump available to all who live near the oceans, as well as some who don’t: one way or another we are all guilty. But this scene is only the beginning of the problems our oceans face world-wide.

When I served in the Navy beginning in 1969, I was stationed in Pensacola, Florida on the gulf coast. It was there that I discovered one of my favorite eating fish, the Red Snapper, which at that time was in great abundance: Red Snapper swam in schools you could see around the docks close to the shore in Escambia Bay, Pensacola’s gateway to the gulf. Local fishing boats took passengers out into the bay to indulge in what was usually a plentiful catch. People could always count on a dinner of Red Snapper, just by dropping a fishing line in the water. Along the gulf coast, living off the ocean was not just a myth, but a reality enjoyed by all who wanted to participate, young, old, wealthy or poor: at the time it seemed as if there was fish aplenty, that the stores could never be depleted. But that all changed within my lifetime. I had a chance to visit that area a few years ago and was shocked to learn how things had changed: Red Snapper fishing was not so easy anymore. Fishing boats have to go out 50 to 75 miles into the gulf just to see and fish for Red Snapper: very often they didn’t catch any. This has all taken place within a generation.

As fish stocks are depleted, they are replaced by jelly fish. There are already depleted fish schools that used to be plentiful, including the cod fishery off of Newfoundland and the blue tuna fishery world wide. It is a shocking to read world sailor Ivan Macfaydyen’s account of the difference when making the same global sailing trip between Melbourne and Osaka,  Japan just ten years ago compared to his most recent voyage over the same route. On the trip ten years ago, he comments “there was not one of the 28 days on that portion of the trip when we didn’t catch a good-sized fish to cook up and eat with some rice.” He points out that, in his most recent sailing adventure, he found a dead ocean—-no birds, no fish: during the entire journey he netted just two fish. The Major life he saw was a whale with a tumor on its head.

But our oceans are far worse than what this image conveys.  It’s what we are dissolving in the ocean that threatens the oceanic environment far more than the visible garbage, as repulsive at the image above might be. The oceans are a sink for the increasing levels of carbon dioxide in the air which, when dissolved in the ocean, forms carbonic acid, leading to acidification and a loss of coral formation. Many experts are predicting that coral reefs will be gone within the time frame of a single generation.

We have created large dead zones in our oceans, as excess fertilizer, carried off the land by rain and carried by streams to the ocean.  In the ocean it nourishes a huge growth of algae, and the decaying algae nourish a huge growth of bacteria.  The bacteria suck all the dissolved oxygen out of the water, and the fish die.   This has created huge dead zones in coastal waters and, some suspect, in the deep ocean as well, though that has yet to be confirmed.

Recently the largest dead zone ever recorded invaded the gulf of Mexico and covered 8,500 square miles conveying death to every fish in its wake. Over the past 10 years a number of fish stocks have collapsed. These include the Peruvian anchovy, Alaskan pollack, North Sea cod, South African anchovy, Alaska king crab, and California sardine.

Canada has eliminated cod fishing off Newfoundland because of overfishing. This area used to be one of the world’s richest sources of cod. Overfishing drove cod populations so low, that further fishing would have driven the species to near extinction. Giant trawlers, having nets that reach the bottom have caught the breeding size fish such that reproduction has been largely eliminated.

The most disturbing feature of how we are treating our oceans is that we are destroying our oceans before we understand them. That, combined with the fact that no country assumes responsibility for maintaining ocean quality, means that we are almost helpless as we witness the decline in ocean quality, without the capacity to do anything about it.  Have we reached a point of no return in overpopulation and over fishing?

Plastics are also a major source of ocean pollution. Ocean plastic breaks up into bite-sized pieces, eaten by fish who die from the ingestion. There must be a syndrome for this but I couldn’t find it: Plastic Fish Intoxication?

Mexico City, the 19th most populated city on the planet with 5,974 people per /Km2

Mexico City, the 19th most populated city on the planet with 5,974 people per /Km2

Mexico City is only the 19th most populated city on the planet but this image conveys how city growth has left the city with no room for parks or more natural habitat. When the city experiences temperature inversion smog, birds flying into the smog will very often die before finishing their journey. We are choking off the air we breathe and the oceanic contribution to our food intake. When will we learn to seriously address these problems? We almost don’t know where to begin. One in six jobs in the United States is related to the ocean.

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Climate Accord Reached in Lima, Peru

Posted on December 14th, 2014 in Climage Change,Environment by Robert Miller
Surface Greenland Ice Flowing into a Moulin

Surface Greenland Ice Flowing into a Moulin

The United Nations has been trying for twenty years to formulate a policy that everyone could agree to and that objective was finally reached this week at the climate summit meeting in Lima, Peru. The new agreement represents a type of accord not seen in any other climate summit meeting in that all nations will strive to reduce greenhouse gases. Unfortunately the goal was to establish a reduction in greenhouse gases that would prevent the planet from reaching 3.6 degrees Fahrenheit and this agreement falls far short of that objective by about half. Should this agreement be endorsed at the meeting next year in Paris, the planet will still be imperiled by greenhouse gas emissions and it is not clear how we will achieve more meaningful reductions. But, it is a good start. The agreement was reached by the 196 countries that attended the meeting; it calls for every country  to advance their own plans to reduce carbon emissions over the next six months. Each of these plans will be published on the United Nations website.

Climate scientists tell us that if we can avoid the 3.6 degree Fahrenheit ceiling we can prevent the planet from reaching a tipping point beyond which the planet will be unpredictably imperiled. Earlier this year the level of CO2 in the atmosphere reached 400 ppm, a point at which some climatologists claim matched the CO2 level when the the polar ice gaps were formed. Melting of the polar ice caps and the Greenland ice mass could raise the sea level by about 270 feet.

I listened to Secretary of State Kerry speak at the climate summit in Peru and I was almost shocked by his message; it was by far the most forceful statement endorsing a list of issues that must be addressed in a timely manner. I do not believe I have heard anyone from the Obama administration make a more impassioned statement in support of the climate emergency we face today and for a long time well into the future. Delegates at the meeting emphasized that what triggered the success of this summit was created when China and the United States jointly agreed to reduce the carbon emissions last month in Beijing , jointly declared by President Obama and President Xi Jinping of China. China and the US are the two largest emitters of greenhouse gases on the planet. Go Obama and Xi Jinping!

The NYT has a breaking story today which you can view here.


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Is California experiencing an overdue drought?

Posted on February 2nd, 2014 in Climage Change,Environment by Robert Miller

A once submerged car in the Almaden Reservoir in California From the NYT

You have probably heard about the serious drought conditions threatening the West, with the epicenter in California. If not, the NYT today has a front page article on the drought problem which now threatens the drinking water supply for 40,000 rural residents who could run out of water in 60 to 120 days, without some form of moisture reprieve; much of the rest of  California is also facing a serious water shortage problem that shows no sign of letting up. When a movie in Hollywood ended recently, patrons came out to find it was raining as they stood and clapped at the all too infrequent event. The NYT site has a slide show that reveals the serious nature of the drought. “We are on track for having the worst drought in 500 years,” said B. Lynn Ingram, a professor of earth and planetary sciences at the University of California, Berkeley.  Farmers are especially impacted as are medical marijuana growers, because each marijuana plant requires 6 gallons of water per day. According to California Governor Jerry Brown, the blame game has already started as people assume some individuals or a poorly run government agency must be responsible for the water shortage.

John Wesley Powell’s warnings, that West beyond the 100th meridian (in Texas) did not have enough rainfall for successful farming, has had its impact delayed; he didn’t foresee the man made diversion of the Colorado River or the existence of aquifers. However, these sources of water are now fully subscribed and/or seriously depleted in some areas with global climate change  threatening to remove more moisture from the soil, because warmer air can hold more moisture and thus removes it from the already arid conditions of the land. We are having a very rich snow year here in Minnesota and I can’t help but think some of the excessive moisture we have experienced was picked up by the warm atmosphere from the desert regions of the West and visited us in the form of more snow.

No one knows when this drought might be over, but already people have changed their living habits to conserve water and indications for the near future are that water-using habits will have to change drastically to insure drinking water access for each home. But so far, one has the impression that residents living in the West are no more concerned about global climate change, which makes those conditions worse, than those living in other parts of the country who are less threatened at the moment by water shortage.


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