Promising tale of a new approach developed by Dr. Edith Widder to detect and monitor pollution in estuaries and marine ecosystems. Also illustrates how basic science – in this case, exploring the wonders of the deep dark ocean – can help shed light on the very applied problem of pollution. Do read the story accompanying this video in the New York Times.
How many such rescue acts will we – and the whales – need? Will they ever forgive us?
Two interesting, alarming reports this week about what’s happening (no small thanks to us) to the dominant habitat on this watery planet. First, that habitat is becoming even more dominant: a paper in PNAS meticulously reconstructs global sea-levels over the past two millenia to show that the oceans have been steadily rising, in concert with climatic changes, and that their rise has accelerated in recent years. This figure ought to worry you:
Meanwhile, though, that dominant habitat is also becoming emptier of inhabitants, as we continue to deplete marine wildlife in alarming ways.
So concludes an international panel of marine scientists convened by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO). Even though conservation biologists have a reputation for being alarmists, this statement from one of the panelists, should worry you:
“The findings are shocking,” said Alex Rogers, IPSO’s scientific director and professor of conservation biology at Oxford University.
“As we considered the cumulative effect of what humankind does to the oceans, the implications became far worse than we had individually realised.
“We’ve sat in one forum and spoken to each other about what we’re seeing, and we’ve ended up with a picture showing that almost right across the board we’re seeing changes that are happening faster than we’d thought, or in ways that we didn’t expect to see for hundreds of years.”
“The rate of change is vastly exceeding what we were expecting even a couple of years ago,” said Ove Hoegh-Guldberg, a coral specialist from the University of Queensland in Australia.
“So if you look at almost everything, whether it’s fisheries in temperate zones or coral reefs or Arctic sea ice, all of this is undergoing changes, but at a much faster rate than we had thought.”
But more worrying than this, the team noted, are the ways in which different issues act synergistically to increase threats to marine life.
Those “different issues” include, of course, overfishing, pollution – especially from nasty plastics – ocean acidification, and warming. All adding up to the next mass extinction, one we are living through, unprecedented in being caused largely by a single species – us. So what are we to do?
IPSO’s immediate recommendations include:
- stopping exploitative fishing now, with special emphasis on the high seas where currently there is little effective regulation
- mapping and then reducing the input of pollutants including plastics, agricultural fertilisers and human waste
- making sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions.
Sounds simple enough, right? Clean up our act and take responsibility? So, we may know the way to back away from this rising, empty tide. Do we have the will?
Kemp, A., Horton, B., Donnelly, J., Mann, M., Vermeer, M., & Rahmstorf, S. (2011). Climate related sea-level variations over the past two millennia Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences DOI: 10.1073/pnas.1015619108
Although I cringe at this fantastic Vampire Squid being described as a “living fossil”—another oxymoron that won’t go away from the popular lexicon of misrepresentations when it comes to evolution—even by the estimable Monterey Bay Aquarium Research Institute, this is an amazing video, and I like the rest of the narration. How little we know about the wonders lurking underneath the oceans! How much of it will we never discover because of what we are doing to the oceans?
How rapacious and unthinking a creature are we humans?
When it comes to the world’s oceans, on this watery planet, our actions have been unconscionable indeed, driven apparently by two sad dimensions of our blinkered perspective. Out of sight, out of mind is a big reason why even many conservationists and environmentalists failed to realize (and some continue to underestimate) the sheer magnitude of our crimes against the marine realms. The other problem, historically, has been the perception that the ocean is so vast — and it certainly seems so to the eyes of tiny bipedal primates wading into the shallows from a beach — that it must surely be able to absorb everything we throw at it and pour into it! How can the actions of puny terrestrial humans affect such vast unfathomable realms of mystery? Our comprehension of scale — the true scale of our impact in relation to the scale of the oceans — has lagged far behind our newfound abilities to lay waste to vast stretches of land and sea. And our senses aren’t catching up fast enough to arrest, let alone reverse, the damage.
Last week, NPR’s Talk of the Nation hosted Sylvia Earle and Enric Sala, both National Geographic Explorers in Residence, in a wide-ranging (and often eye-opening for this landlubber) discussion of the incredible beauty of the ocean realm, as well as our impacts thereupon and how we have pushed marine ecosystems to the brink all over the world. They both tried to end with messages of hope, but its damned difficult to maintain optimism when you realize just how badly we have damaged the oceans, and how we aren’t even slowing down our unbridled consumption of the sea’s resources. Listen to the conversation, and tell me where you glimpse any rays of hope:
Also last week came some fresh evidence of our crimes against the oceans: an estimate of our visible impacts on that invisible realm, the deep seafloor. According to this press release from the UK’s National Oceanography Center, our collective hunger for seafood, and the horrendous trawling we do to capture our prey and all else in our path by dragging massive nets across the seabed, leaves by far the biggest visible footprint on the deep seafloor. And its not a pretty picture:
This is a damaged cold-water coral reef off Troms county, Norway: coral debris and trawl marks.
They looked exclusively at the physical footprint rather than the consequential ecological effects of disturbance, contamination and pollution, which are harder to ascertain. One difficulty that they faced was that of accessing data on human activities that was accurate, up to date and comprehensive, and in a suitable format for analysis.
“Some governments, public organisations and private companies were far more forthcoming with information than others,” explained Benn. “Significant improvements are needed in data collection and availability, and this requirement needs to be built into international conventions and treaties with a legal framework in place to ensure informed environmental management.”
Despite difficulties and various uncertainties, the researchers’ assessment suggests that, although now banned, previously dumped radioactive waste, munitions and chemical weapons together have the lowest physical footprint of the human activities considered, although they do not consider potential dispersal after leakage.
Non-fisheries marine scientific research also has a relatively small footprint, whereas those of fisheries marine scientific research, telecommunication cables and the oil and gas industry are moderate. However, even on the lowest estimates, the spatial extent of bottom trawling is at least ten times that for the other activities assessed, with a physical footprint greater than that of all the others combined.