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Day 5: Clean and cool oceans
Covering about 70% of the Earth’s surface, the world’s five great oceans have a complicated, but essential, relationship with our weather and climate. As the climate warms, so too do the oceans, which results in melting land ice, iceburgs and rising sea levels, a real and present danger for many coastal areas of the world. But on the positive side, the oceans have also dampened the effects of climate change as they naturally absorb vast quantities of carbon dioxide (CO2), which would have otherwise entered our atmosphere and add to the greenhouse effect. However, this absorption of CO2 has resulted in the oceans becoming slightly more acidic over the past century and this changes the condition of marine habitats, potentially harming biodiversity. Another growing issue concerning the health of our oceans is the ever increasing quantity of plastic that ends up in our seas that persists for decades if not centuries, damaging marine life and the polluting the unique ecosystems they depend upon.
Decisions made at COP21 will indirectly have potentially huge consequences for the future health of our oceans. And even though we are predominantly land-dwellers, there is something that each one of us can do to help preserve the health, biodiversity and cooler temperatures that our oceans need.
What actions can we take to help the oceans keep their cool?
So, even though you might live hundreds, if not thousands, of kilometres from the sea, there is still much you can do to help protect our oceans:
Citizens: every citizen on this planet has a role to play in helping to ensure our oceans remain healthy, biodiverse and as cool as possible. Ensuring that any plastic waste gets recycled and does not end up in our waterways or oceans will make a difference to the health of sea life. Fancy a bit of fish over Christmas? Then ensure it is marine friendly by looking for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), only awarded to sustainably caught and non-endangered fish and shellfish. And, of course, reducing our individual carbon footprints generally will help ensure our oceans stay chilled out.
Civil Society: communities everywhere can rise to the challenge. Spread awareness of what’s at stake over these 12 days of COPmas for our seas, encourage and organise mass clean-ups of waterways and coastal areas, as rubbish dumped in rivers and on beaches often end up in the ocean, leading to the sad fact that 80% of the ocean’s litter originated on land
Corporates: businesses, from the blue chip multinationals, through to the micro SME and start-ups, all have a role to play in the future health of our oceans. Retailers and manufacturers can help towards protecting oceans reducing plastic packaging on all food and other products, by stocking only MSC products and reducing their carbon footprints generally. Whatever the size of your company, make a business-wide new year’s resolution to tackle and reduce your unnecessary carbon emissions, you’ll save cash too!
Water, water, everywhere, but not a drop to drink
There are three important issues that link oceans and climate. The first is ocean warming due to climate change, the second is ocean acidification due to carbon absorption and the third, slightly more indirect, is the plastic waste which ends up in our oceans. Decisions made in COP21 this week could have huge impacts on the future of ocean health, but we can also help the process as individuals because what we do indirectly impacts them too. So this Christmas, take a moment to think about how daily routines and Christmas traditions could be harming our precious oceans, even if you live hundreds of kms from the sea.
Ocean temperature change As greenhouse gases absorb more infrared energy from the earth’s surface, trapping it in our atmosphere and raising air temperatures, our oceans absorb more heat from the air above them, resulting in increases in sea surface temperatures. As oceans get warmer, the coastal land ice and icebergs melt, resulting in rising sea levels across the globe, but not necessarily evenly spread. This means impacts will be unevenly distributed between countries and continents. The impacts of climate change associated with sea level rise and stronger storms are especially relevant to coastal communities, but could well have knock on effects to millions more people as migration patterns change and previous bustling coastal towns and cities become inhabitable or are lost under the encroaching sea.
Changes in ocean temperatures and currents brought about by climate change could lead to alterations in climate patterns around the world. For example, warmer waters may promote the development of stronger storms in the tropics, which could cause devastating consequences for people living there.
The good news is however, we can all play our part in reducing our personal carbon emissions and hence help to slow down these processes.
Absorbing Carbon Dioxide and biodiversity Another important natural relationship between oceans and our climate is that oceans absorb and store carbon dioxide emitted by humans and other natural actions. Scientists believe that the oceans currently absorb 30-50% of the CO2 produced by burning fossil fuels, and if oceans ceased to perform this function, atmospheric CO2 levels would be even higher than they are today. However, the absorption of increasing levels of CO2 over the past centuries has not come without its own consequences; the vital ‘carbon sink’ process that the ocean provides is changing our oceans’ chemistry. Our oceans have become slightly more acidic over the last 100 years because of increased levels of CO2, which dissolves in water. Higher acidity affects the balance of minerals in the water, which can make it more difficult for certain marine animals to build their skeletons and shells. The resulting change has slowed growth of plankton, corals, and other invertebrates that serve as the most basic level of the ocean food chain. If we don’t curb CO2 emissions, the impacts on marine life could be more severe into the future and have potential consequences all the way up the marine food chain.
Plastic in the ocean We have produced more plastic in the last 10 years than we did in the last century. Society’s plastic habit is having a hugely negative impact on our oceans and its marine habitats. Plastic production not only uses vast amounts of precious oil reserves, approximately 8%, but half of all plastic produced is thrown away after a single use.
Sadly, lots of this waste finds its way into our waterways and then into our oceans. Fishing nets, plastic bags, and tyres can sink to the ocean floor and break and smother coral reefs. Seabirds, sea turtles, fish, and marine mammals often ingest marine debris that they mistake for food with often deadly consequences. For example, whales and sea turtles often mistake plastic bags for squid, and birds often mistake plastic pellets for fish eggs. Marine life can become entangled in marine debris causing serious injury and can lead to suffocation, starvation, drowning, increased vulnerability to predators, or other injury.
Although the scale of this problem seems daunting, it’s not all doom and gloom. In fact, individuals have their own roles to play to help reduce this problem. For example, simple actions such as refusing plastic bags, ensuring litter doesn’t get into waterways up stream, generally reducing purchase of plastic, and/or over packaged goods are all ways to make positive change.