So What If Oceans Are Dying?

An estuary mouth and coastal waters, part of a...
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I don’t like seafood anyway, you say?

Hold on. Think about it. Look under the hood and check this engine out. We–the 7 billion living on dry land and the preceding few hundred years of humanity–have managed to perturb the Ocean so that its complex machinery is grinding to a halt. For centuries, the Ocean has been dying slowly. It could begin to die quickly very soon from a perfect storm of threats. Without it, life on land is threatened. There’s a sliver of a chance we can reverse the trend, even yet. But here’s what’s at risk:

â–¶ Every other breath you take (at least you can think about it this way) was created by photosynthetic creatures in the sea–phytoplankton–that also take CO2 out of the atmosphere to synthesize the carbon framework of their cells and organelles. The CO2 we produce, they capture. TAKE HOME: global O2 levels would plummet if the “green ocean” organisms are among the next great organic disappearing act that is being called the Anthropocene (man-made) extinction.

â–¶ That human agriculture and industry-created CO2 (which surpassed steady state for earth temperature averages in 1984 and now exceeds 390 parts per million) is removed from the atmosphere by forests and by phytoplankton, and the carbon is deposited in deep sea beds, out of the greenhouse gas loop for millions of years. TAKE HOME: Far more carbon dioxide will remain in the atmosphere acting as a greenhouse gas if not absorbed by healthy phytoplankton in upper ocean waters. Acidification and warming spell trouble for many calcium-forming ocean creatures, phytoplankton chief among them.

â–¶ Marine creatures–again, chiefly phytoplankton at the bottom of the marine food chain, play a central role in nutrient recycling. Nitrogen and phosphorus, for instance (especially phosphorus is a fixed stock, not renewable except for this recycling) erode from the land and wash continuously into the oceans.

Paradoxically, when massive amounts of these nutrients over-fertilize the green ocean, their metabolism sucks all the oxygen up, and vast and growing dead zones form. TAKE HOME: dead oceans can’t recycle essential soil nutrients into living creatures. By the way, hope you never liked oysters, already declared “functionally extinct.”

Pollution, warming, acidification, overfishing and hypoxia: these threats to the world’s OCEAN (think of it as one body of water, not OUR ocean versus THEIR ocean) have reached an extent such that “If it continues to decline, it will reach a point where it can no longer function effectively and our planet will be unable to sustain the ecosystems that support humankind.”

The June 20 statement by the International Programme on the State of the Ocean concluded that “the world’s ocean is at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.”

So what? you ask. Really? If you still can’t wrap your head around the urgency of this matter, watch a few of the video interviews on particular issues mentioned above after clicking through the fine interactive graphic depicting the major roles of the ocean.

Can this rapid deterioration of such a vast portion of Earth be reversed? In my opinion, no–unless we (the big WE) shift our economies to be based on sustainable ecological services and not on “phantom wealth” that derives from the unsustainable commodification of nature and natural systems. More talking to myself on this topic perhaps to come.

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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. From the Wikipedia article on the Permian-Triassic Extinction (a.k.a. “The Great Dying”):

    “The sequence of events leading to anoxic oceans might have involved a period of global warming that reduced the temperature gradient between the equator and the poles, which slowed or even stopped the thermohaline circulation. The slow-down or stoppage of the thermohaline circulation could have reduced the mixing of oxygen in the ocean.”

    The P-T Extinction resulted in the loss of 96% of all marine life and as much as 70% of terrestrial animal life. If we want to survive, we can’t pretend that it could never happen again, and we need to figure what, if anything, we can do about it.

  2. Your post and Curt’s comment are both very worthwhile. Education is paramount in this struggle, Fred. Don’t stop writing about it, no matter how little effect you feel it is having. Adding your voice can’t help but help!!