New Ocean Challenges

Chuuk Lagoon, Went Federated States of Micronesia Marek Okon on Unsplash

Some twenty years ago, as I contemplated the founding of the World Ocean Observatory, I asked a scientist I met over launch at my first ocean conference, “What is the most pressing challenge to ocean health and sustainability?” His response was immediate, without hesitation. “Acidification,” he said, and I had no idea what he was talking about.

The US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Agency (NOAA) defines ocean acidification as “a reduction in the pH of the ocean over an extended period of time, caused primarily by uptake of carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere.” Essentially, this is the outfall of consumption, fossil fuel energy, emissions, acid rain, and the other chemical consequences that lie at the heart of climate change. These outcomes are now evident and familiar, with negative impacts of weather, circulation, water condition, coastal and marine habitat, fisheries and other marine species, food security, human health, and community development. As we read headlines of changing global conditions, we are parsing the meaning of acidification.

I recently came across an article by science writer Mary Hoff in which she surveys the conclusions of 30 conservation experts around the world, published in a July 2022 report in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, that added 15 new ocean challenges, comparably surprising, equally disturbing. Let me paraphrase them here:

  • Fire Fallout: The increasing frequency and severity of wildfire on land that, through wind and rain, distributes soot, chemicals, other burn by-products into the ocean.
  • Dark Matter: Increased sediment and nutrient imbalance resulting from climate change, coastal development, thawing permafrost, promoting algae growth other plant productivity, and moderating sunlight and its relation to life systems and species survival.
  • Toxic Metals: Industrial waste and pollutants deposited from onshore, affecting water chemistry, contaminating fish and shellfish consumed by humans and introduced into our bodies by ingestion and absorption.
  • Pole Shift: Increased temperature driven change to water temperature and organism migration from the warmer waters of the equator toward the cooler waters of the poles.
  • Fatty Acid Famine: Limited production of essential fatty acids by fish limited by changing ocean environmental conditions and feeding patterns.
  • Protein Potential: The harvest of collagens for consumer goods such as cosmetics from livestock to ocean animals such as sponges, jellyfish, and sharks.
  • Swim Bladder Demand: Growth in the cultural demand for dried fish swim bladders as a food luxury contributing to waste and the endangerment of certain species on which other species depend.
  • Carbon Removal: The decrease in fish population resulting in decrease carbon sequestration by these animals as counter-action to climate change.
  • Lithium Water: The extraction of lithium for battery demand for electric vehicles and energy storage through deep sea mining with destruction of ocean floor and biodiversity.
  • Volume: The increased exploitation of ocean resources as land resources are exhausted or polluted demanding colocation, cluster enterprise, regulation, technology, and other efforts to maintain sustainability.
  • Cities at Sea: The prospect of floating cities and other initiatives for citizen relocation, aquaculture and hydroponic production, protection against invasive species, and other innovations that add further threat to ocean systems.
  • Green Pollutants: The growth in “green” technologies that require greater use of chemicals and rare metals with after-effects to include fertilizers, trace metals, waste treatment leaching, and other advertent and inadvertent deposit into watersheds, coastal areas, and ocean systems with negative implication for sea life.
  • New Technological Impacts: The unforeseen consequence of research, robots, radio signals, sonar, underwater radar, underwater cables, and other initiatives associated with mapping, planning, location, and other technological innovations for expanded study and exploitation of the ocean.
  • Biodegradation: The exponential growth of the degradation of plastics and other land wastes that are already a critical condition with ever-increasing toxicity comparable to acidification and compounding that already pervasive toxic condition.

For every action there is reaction. There is no reason that our deplorable record of behavior on land will not extend to the sea, unless we understand, in advance, that the old systems of values and choices will not enable an ocean on which we must now depend for survival. Danger lurks in even the most progressive policy or technology unless there is a new paradigm for evaluation and application, one that, this time around, truly protects and sustains the potential of a nurturing ocean, of an asset that, if lost, will be a catastrophe of political and social will, an undoing for which there will be no repair.

PETER NEILL is founder and director of the World Ocean Observatory, a web-based place of exchange for information and educational services about the health of the world ocean. He is also host of World Ocean Radio, upon which this blog is inspired. World Ocean Radio celebrates 15 years this year, with more than 645 episodes produced to date.

Do you prefer to listen? Find us on YouTube.

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