The Accelerating Water Cycle

In the international policy discourse about climate change, there is a recurring, very odd distinction in use between “climate” and “ocean,” as if these are two separate phenomena, and climate being the over-arching concept, with the ocean as a subsidiary contributor. But isn’t it just the other way round? The ocean is the central arbiter of environmental consequence on land; it is the key system for circulation of consequence worldwide; and it is the principal engine in the water cycle from surface to weather to freshwater supply for irrigation on land, riverine flux, extreme storm, severe drought, wildfire, crop failure, societal disruption, and increasing geopolitical conflict. The ocean IS climate — as primary cause, integrated natural process worldwide, driver of physical and social effect, and most important, locus for local and global solution.

This assertion has been further supported by a recent study in Scientific Reports, an academic journal, that describes the significantly increased measurement of ocean temperature and salinity, with correlated increase of evaporation and moisture accumulated and distributed around the world, the difference being between data collected by a limited system of ocean buoys and by a more universally distributed satellite system with more comprehensive coverage and more accurate measurement. What the study concludes is that all our climate predictions and timelines are based on lesser data and are underestimated in both degree and extent. What the data suggests is that climate change, as revealed by real ocean change, is happening faster and greater than previously predicted, and that evidence presented by record temperature, record weather events, destructive drought and destructive rain, with even greater impact in growing areas around the world will only increase — larger, sooner.

Given what we see with melting of the polar icecaps or the desiccated areas of rural India or erosion in Brazil or water critical freshwater sources in major urban centers everywhere, this prediction does not bode well for local, national, and international health, welfare, and stability.

There are many ancillary aspects to the quandary: ocean mixing and toxin circulation, marine species habitat, migration, feeding, related food supply, employment, protein reduction, disease, and so much more — all previously known, even as based on an incomplete data set, met with concern, policy resolve, public awareness, and incidence of pro-active response, but under-achieved, unmet, as a result of disillusion, hypocrisy, overt subversion, lack of political will and financial commitment, and fear of change.

What exactly are we afraid of? Are we afraid to give up impending loss for future gain? Are we afraid to give up convention for invention? Are we afraid to give up complacency for action? Are we afraid to give up the growing evidence of regress for progress? What should give us solace is the extraordinary power of Nature to heal and revive through a cycle of resilience and renewal. If we see that cycle corrupted, we must apply the courage of our conviction, understand the probabilities and projections, take the risk to intervene and redress.

What is amiss here is not just a lack of will or inadequate response. It transcends such failure by degrees far more devastating and dangerous. At some point, when we have so invaded a natural system to have shifted its alignment, its established rhythm, its successful extent, modified the process to an off-kilter axis, we may have passed that point of no return, so modified that the water cycle is transformed from benefit to detriment, from abundance to scarcity, from rejuvenative power to destructive weakness, even collapse. We are faced with the loss of an essential system of life. To quibble about terms, nuance and distinction, when the proof of deteriorating change is so evident, with so many tragic ramifications upon us, is no better (cliché forgiven) than those rearranged chairs on the deck of the Titanic. And, as with that tragic event, the band played on to no avail. What will it take?

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 14 years this year, with more than 635 episodes produced to date.

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