One-Two Punch: The Ocean is on the Ropes

The first and most wide-ranging, oceans-wide blow has been referred to as “osteoporosis of the sea.” Acidification (global warming’s “evil twin”) from an excess of CO2 is causing pathological changes to the calcium-containing components of sea organisms, phytoplankton (bottom of the food chain) and coral reefs (the tropical rain forests of the ocean as far as diversity goes) chief among them.

It’s not a good idea for the acid-base balance in your body to fluctuate very much at all. This can happen if you don’t get rid of CO2 that enters the blood from metabolism of sugars and such, because of the carbonic acid / bicarbonate that it produces in your blood plasma–the salty sea within us. You will become very ill or die if pH varies outside narrow parameters. To prevent this, there are precise feedback systems (including faster or slower breathing, increased or decreased renal excretion or retention) to keep you healthy.

The oceans checks and balances are not working. It is breathing in CO2 from the enriched atmosphere faster than it can neutralize all of it. It’s pH indicates approaching health crisis. That’s the entire world’s oceans, folks. It is a calamity that is almost incomprehensible in its dimensions or significance.

The second, more localized but no less concerning blow is river delta “dead zones” most notably the one associated with the vast Mississippi drainage. The chief agent of harm is nitrogen (nitrates in particular) from human and animal waste and runoff from fertilized farm fields, lawns and golf courses.

Nitrogenic substances in the river water (the Missouri, Ohio and others) then at the Gulf of Mexico over-fertilzes marine phytoplankton which dies in its abundance, to be broken down by bacteria in similar abundance, that extract such vast volumes of oxygen from the water for their digestive processes that nothing can live there afterwards–an oxygenless wasteland– a  dead zone.

This is not a new issue, but the fact that, even with decades of improvements in livestock practices, fertilizer application and sewage treatment, nitrogen levels and the dead zones they produce continue to rise alarmingly. And nobody knows for sure why this is so. This recent article is very informative.

Dead zone pollutant grows despite decades of work. But who’s the culprit? – Environmental Health News

Atmospheric nitrogen has increased as we burn ever more fossil fuels. Corn acreage is way up (ethanol biofuel paying no small role here). Farm fertilizer use is way up–a requirement as there are more mouths to feed, more topsoil erosion, and the rule of big-AG and big-OIL who profit from outdate and unsustainable farming practices.

But the most likely explanation proposed for continued nitrogen increases even during non-rainy periods (where there is less runoff) is that nitrogen has percolated deep into the nation’s groundwater for decades and is leaching out slowly over coming decades, like a time-release poison.

(And by the way, we’re talking about a heck of a lot of ground water that is being pumped to the surface (chiefly for agiculture) and into the oceans.  Talk about your double insult: human use of “fossil water” from underground may be contributing more, at least for the short term, to sea level rise than melting glaciers.

Source found for missing water in sea-level rise : Nature News & Comment

Never have we needed more the careful and collaborative science to help us understand this and so many other issues of the Anthropocene and mankind’s impact on the living world; and never have we needed intelligent and just restrictions over and above voluntary best practices, which by themselves will not be enough. And paradoxically, never in our history have so many vilified both science and government.

Sorry, Charlie Tuna.

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Fred First holds masters degrees in Vertebrate Zoology and physical therapy, and has been a biology teacher and physical therapist by profession. He moved to southwest Virginia in 1975 and to Floyd County in 1997. He maintains a daily photo-blog, broadcasts essays on the Roanoke NPR station, and contributes regular columns for the Floyd Press and Roanoke's Star Sentinel. His two non-fiction books, Slow Road Home and his recent What We Hold in Our Hands, celebrate the riches that we possess in our families and communities, our natural bounty, social capital and Appalachian cultures old and new. He has served on the Jacksonville Center Board of Directors and is newly active in the Sustain Floyd organization. He lives in northeastern Floyd County on the headwaters of the Roanoke River.

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  1. Very new info to me. The first article was so long I didn’t dive in, but the second short one I read. I’m glad you do the reading and summarizing for me. I sure see Easter Island scenario as Earth’s future. Population growth and extremely slow changes in our behavior make for a pessimistic picture.