I See What You Did There

Words: Irina Chitas
Photo: Frederico Martins for Portuguese Soul December 2016 with Joaquim Arnell

Since humans need the ocean to be able to breathe and have a planet to live on, of course we went out of our way to protect it. Except we didn’t.

The first sailing vessels were created in Ancient Egypt, in 4000 BC. And it all went downhill from there. Since we thought we owned the world (land, ocean and even skies) and beyond, it is our sole responsibility to deal with the mess we made of it. Particularly the oceans, since they control our climates, our oxygen levels, how much land we have to stand on and, well, basically our ability to be alive. So we dived into UNESCO’s Ocean Literacy Portal, COP’s reports, Greenpeace, Because the Ocean and NASA to see where we are and where we’re going.

Here’s what you need to know from the start:

· The ocean makes up about 71% of our planet’s surface, which means that it holds 99% of the habitable space in the world. Well, not for humans, exactly. But not everything is about us.

· It’s Earth’s biggest ecosystem: the Pacific, Atlantic, Indian, Arctic and Southern Oceans host 94% of our planet’s wildlife.

· 95% of the ocean remains unseen and unexplored by humans. We act like know-it-alls, but we’ve been only able to charter about 5% of it.

· Why, you may ask? Because it’s easier to send someone to space than to the bottom of the ocean. Like with most of the things going on in our lives, there’s just too much pressure.

· Speaking in a very practical way, the ocean is also a hot topic (yep, pun intended) when it comes to our daily lives: 80% of the world’s goods are transported by ships.

· The ocean generates more than half the oxygen we breathe (thank you, phytoplankton) and impacts our climate dramatically. So we probably should be saving it. But instead…

Here’s what we’ve been doing to it:

· Over the past century, we’ve warmed things up by about 0.6 ºC to 0.9 ºC worldwide. It has been predicted that we’ll reach an increase of between 1.8 ºC — 4.0 ºC by 2090. In case you’re wondering, that’s too hot to handle. Let’s just take a second to remember why this matters: since water has a high capacity for absorbing heat, it takes a really long time, and a lot of heat absorption, for its temperature to rise even 1ºC. But it already has. And when we heat something, its molecules expand. So the ocean, besides getting warmer, is growing. And we’re losing the few pieces of earth we have to live in. The sea levels are rising, and our feet (to put it very mildly) are getting wet.

· Then, there’s the ice. You guessed it: it’s melting. Since the 1990s, we’ve lost 19.9 trillion tonnes of land ice, causing sea levels to rise by 35 mm (10 mm solely from the Greenland Ice Sheet). When it comes to sea ice, we’re talking about 7.6 trillion tonnes in the Arctic alone, meaning that by 2035 — yes, in 12 years — Arctic summers may experience a complete loss of sea ice cover.

· And there’s yet another issue. Not only is the water getting hotter, but it’s also getting acidic. Since the ocean absorbs about a third of our carbon emissions, all the excess carbon dioxide in our atmosphere (caused by pollution) is being dissolved in seawater, creating acidic oceans in which species like plankton — the preferred food of whales and mantas, for example — can’t thrive. Since the pre-industrial era, ocean surface water pH has decreased by 0.1. It may not seem like much, but this means a 30% increase in acidity.

· Since it’s way too warm, even down there, we’re seeing this new phenomenon called tropicalization, which means that things like the disappearance of kelp forests off the coasts of Japan and Australia force tropical species to migrate in order to find food in habitats they’ve never known before, and that may be hostile to them. Meanwhile, colder species are having to dive deeper to fight the rising temperatures.

· Speaking of fauna, two-thirds of the population of polar bears could disappear within this century.

· And corals, remember them? They may be just a memory in the near future. Coral bleaching, which we’re seeing now, is the last step before corals die of starvation.

· You may have noticed that we have yet to talk about plastic — what can we really say when we’re throwing about 4.8 to 12.7 million tonnes of it a year into the ocean? Here’s the main take: it’s not fantastic. Especially when it comes to marine animals that have to deal with three major health issues when they ingest it: absorbing toxins, not absorbing food (which leads to starvation), and bioaccumulation. These all can lead to death, as plastics are really sponges for toxins, causing major gastric issues, decreased feeding activity, decreased hormone production, delays in ovulation, trouble with the growth of foetuses, an increased risk of new diseases and, yes, death. This issue is transversal to all species — even plankton — and it builds up along the food chain. The bioaccumulation is passed from prey to predator and, from your own selfish point of view, yes, it can end on your dinner table. How were those oysters last week?

· This reminds us: what about overfishing? Three billion people rely on fish as an important and healthy source of protein. Because of this, 80% of commercially relevant marine species are fully or completely overexploited.

· Well, maybe that’s not so bad, since we’re also destroying marine species’ homes. Habitat loss and ecosystem degradation make the oceans unable to support animal and plant life, and these can be caused by a number of things: mining, dredging, construction, aquaculture and, of course, ocean warming, acidification and pollution.

· Bottom line: we’re not only talking about losing our cute beaches. Warmer winds, ocean currents and the rise of surface temperatures all lead to meaner storms, which are much more frequent. We’re looking at millions of people without homes, the cruel spread of frequent pandemics and the birth of new diseases. As David Wallace-Wells puts it in his article for New York magazine, published in 2018 in order to explain the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change’s Summary for Policy Makers, “you now have permission to freak out”.

What if, instead of panicking, we did something about it? Let’s end this on a positive note, look at what is and can be done, and sea if we can still seas the day:

· We all know what we, as individuals, should be doing: educate ourselves, completely delete single-use plastic from our daily lives, use public transportation and avoid unnecessary flying at all costs, introduce a zero-waste policy into our homes, buy less and buy better from more sustainable brands (clothing, furniture and even food) and support local or global initiatives that are doing the heavy lifting for us.

· Sure, the climate emergency can only be tackled with a holistic global solution, and it’s great to know that there already are a huge number of non-profits dedicated to the health of our ocean, such as the Big Blue Ocean Cleanup.

· At COP26, more than 100 countries supported the 30 by 30 target, which calls for the protection of 30% of the world’s ocean and land area by 2030. Studies indicate that this initiative will help to reverse ecological impacts, preserve fish populations, increase resilience to climate change and sustain long-term ocean health.

· The Great Blue Wall movement aims to grow a network of protected areas in the Indian Ocean, conserving and restoring vital marine ecosystems.

· The United Nations is now negotiating a new agreement to protect marine life and create a roadmap for using the ocean’s resources sustainably.

· The Ocean Risk Alliance is increasing investment in nature-based solutions in coastal and marine environments, and both governments and the private sector are joining in, not only on this initiative, but also with the Global Fund for Coral Reefs or PROBLUE.

· Australia, Canada, Chile, Fiji, Ghana, Indonesia, Jamaica, Namibia, Japan, Kenya, Mexico, Palau, Norway and, yes, Portugal — 14 countries that amount to 40% of the world’s coastlines — have all committed to managing their ocean areas in a sustainable way, as part of the High Level Panel for a Sustainable Ocean Economy. This means that 30 million square kilometres will be home to sustainable fisheries and renewable energy by 2025.

· These are, fortunately, just a few (major) examples. There is still hope for the oceans. There is still hope for us.

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