Climate change effect on oceans
If ancient Greek polytheism defined our belief system, we would be well into an era of ritual sacrifices seeking to pacify the sea god, Poseidon.
Island and coastal cities fear full submersion as oscillating and extreme weather patterns take headlines more than ever. Hurricanes and tropical storms are growing in size and destructiveness. Costal reefs are in peril as calcium carbonate (“food” for coral reef skeletons) disappears with rises in ocean acidity and sea pollution. Sea ice is melting and receding in the Arctic and Argentina. And land ice (frozen fresh water) continues to melt at an accelerated rate in Antarctica. Climate change and increased surface temperatures are impacting our oceans as you read.
We at Earthjustice are leaving the skeptics behind. Let’s consider the facts: the average reach of ice in the Arctic in September 2011 (yearly minimum) was 4.61 million square kilometers. That’s 2.43 million square kilometers below the average from 1979 to 2000. This reflects an average monthly decline of 11.5 percent per decade. In Antarctica, NASA satellites show an annual decrease in ice coverage of more than 100 cubic kilometers (24 cubic miles) since 2002.
What does this mean for the Earth?
Rising sea levels. The IPCC 2007 report cited scientists’ observations that sea levels had been rising on average about 1.8mm/year from 1961 to 2003. When we look between 1993 and 2003, the decade reveals an average ocean level rise of 3.1mm/year worldwide. In an extensive study, scientists found that sea level on the Atlantic coast is rising at its greatest average rate (2.1mm/y) in two millennia. The increased rate, they found, began between 1865 and 1892—right smack in the era where steam-powered ships, combustion engines and electrical power generation became the stomach of humanity’s appetite for coal.
Ocean acidification and no more calcification. Acidity in a solution is measured by pH, a logarithmic scale from 1 to 14, and numbers lower than 7 are classified as “acidic”. The oceans are a “sink” for atmospheric CO2, taking up the gas as a step in the global carbon cycle. CO2 reacts with water to form carbonate, the essential ion needed for calcification. Calcifying organisms are found at all levels of the aquatic food web, from shellfish to coral reef. As CO2 levels increase, pH decreases, and the ocean environment becomes more acidic. In this acidified environment, carbonate ion concentrations decrease, leading to reduced rates of calcification. Currently, ocean pH has decreased by 0.1 units, consistent with a 29% concentration change since the Industrial Revolution. This is a dramatic increase in acidity that requires the reduction of anthropogenic emissions correlated with this phenomenon.
The ocean needs a good lawyer. International transport contributes substantially to the emissions driving climate change. Ships spew more than three percent of global carbon emissions—equivalent to 2.2 million pounds of particulate pollution, or half of all global car emissions combined! Earthjustice is continuing a decade-long campaign to force EPA to set strong standards on pollution from ocean-going vessels. Earthjustice litigation spurred EPA in 2010 to adopt more stringent emissions standards for nitrous oxides and sulfur oxides. That same year we filed a lawsuit against EPA for an unreasonable delay in responding to our 2008 petition to regulate greenhouse gases and black carbon from ocean vessels.
To develop a range of legal options that address the impacts of climate change on the oceans, Earthjustice formed the Oceans Working Group, a team of world-class ocean scientists, international ocean law experts, and economists to collaborate in crafting a range of legal and advocacy strategies.
For those of you near San Diego, Los Angeles or San Francisco, join us for a free event featuring award winning, National Geographic oceans photographer David Doubilet next week. Get your feet wet with some breathtaking underwater photos and RSVP for an event near you at earthjustice.org/ocean.