All life on our planet began in the oceans. Planet Earth is not simply referred to as the Blue Planet without adequate reason. The oceans cover nearly 70% of the surface of the earth, the waters cloak the planet in vibrant shades of blue as can be seen from space. Hence, the metaphor!
The oceans are not only a vast expanse of water as we see on the surface; its diversity and uniqueness is like none other. In fact, as a yardstick of comparison, we have undertaken more visits to the moon for exploration than the deepest parts of the ocean, which have still not been seen or understood fully. Less than 10% of the world’s oceans have been studied and recent scientific estimates put the number of as yet undiscovered marine species at a staggering 5 million! Algae forests as tall as redwood trees, coral reefs that stretch for thousands of kilometers and underwater caves and volcanic mountains provide shelter to thousands of marine species.
In recent years, the need to ‘save the oceans’ has assumed monumental proportions in the wake of large scale studies that show how the waters of the oceans are becoming increasingly polluted causing entire marine species to die, become threatened or endangered besides causing strange and severe weather patterns.
The concept of ocean protection is a fairly recent one to governments and scientific agencies and the challenge is enormous. On land, many areas around the world have been earmarked as ‘protected’ and created into havens for preservation of plant and animal life but not much on similar lines has been done with regard to the oceans.
It is the collective responsibility of all mankind to save the oceans because we have for centuries enjoyed the benefits and the pleasures that the oceans have given us.
But why has it become so imperative to save the oceans?
The world’s oceans remained largely unchanged over several centuries but the Industrial Revolution has contributed to the oceans absorbing 30% of the total emissions amounting to an overwhelming 155 billion tons of carbon, almost all of it in the last century. This staggering ratio of carbon dioxide concentrations have not been witnessed since the last Ice Age ended.
We are aware that atmospheric emissions, particularly carbon, are causing global warming. However, what we are less aware about is the role of the oceans in this ongoing conflict. Our ocean waters contain nearly 60 times more carbon than our atmosphere; this carbon is released at rapid rates causing dramatic and drastic climatic changes.
Let’s try to understand how this happens. Increased pollution of the oceans, overfishing and the extinction of certain marine species are changing the composition of the waters drastically. Scientists now know that the Southern Ocean, comprising the Indian, Pacific and Atlantic Oceans are key to understanding the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide. This area comprises the largest section of open ocean waters where large quantities of deep-sea water loaded with CO2 come to the ocean surface. The absence of certain key nutrients in the water like iron that helps plankton metabolize carbon dioxide means that the carbon is simply released into the atmosphere before it can be broken down. The El Nino weather patterns are a direct result of this.
Role of the oceans and why it matters
Covering nearly 70% of the Earth’s surface, the oceans are our planet’s largest ecosystems and mankind’s largest life-support systems. Healthy oceans are at the heart of man’s survival because they generate more than 50% of the oxygen that we breathe, provide nearly 60% of the animal protein we ingest as food; they reduce impact of climate change by absorbing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and are the source of many new discoveries on the scientific and medical fronts. The two-way relationship of the oceans with climate influence weather patterns on local as well as global scales besides altering the fundamental properties of the sea waters. Between the land, water and air the exchange and transport of heat, gases and particles alter the composition of sea water that becomes a precursor to climate change. By understanding these factors, we can shape and alter future global climate patters. But the time for action is NOW!
Greenhouse gases are trapping more of the sun’s energy resulting in the oceans absorbing excess heat; the result is increasing ocean surface temperatures and rising sea levels. As an example, we can cite incidents of warm ocean waters impacting the development of stronger and fiercer tropical storms which cause large-scale loss of life and damage to property, especially along the coastlines – the many severe hurricanes in the recent past are proof of this.
Even though the oceans absorb carbon dioxide and help to avert global climate change, the increase in carbon dioxide levels in the seawater is altering its chemical composition making it more acidic than alkaline. The results of this acidic activity can be found in bleached coral reefs and in the inability of marine organisms like crabs, mollusks, shellfish etc. to build tough shells and skeletons. Recent reports of large-scale bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef in Northern Australia are a rude wake-up for us. Organisms like algae and seaweed can survive at optimum seawater temperatures; even a degree rise in temperature can make their survival scarce. As discussions at the global climate summit held in Paris last year showed, the surface temperatures of ocean waters have risen by two degrees in most parts!
The ocean systems generate change very gradually unlike the atmospheric system where storms and air currents can generate and dissipate in a day. The interaction between the atmosphere and seawater is a gradual process as is the movement of ocean currents from shallow to deeper levels. Therefore, even if greenhouse gas emissions were controlled in the immediate future, it will take up to several decades or even a century for the ocean waters to adjust to atmospheric changes, even though these changes may have already occurred.
We have been largely grossly negligent of safeguarding our oceans polluting it completely and pushing many delicate and sensitive marine species to extinction. Our foremost task is to ensure that the oceans retain their abundance, diversity, resilience and uniqueness, which can be done only through protecting marine habitats. The simple, affordable and long-term solution for this would be to create ‘ocean sanctuaries’ such as those sanctuaries on land so that the resources and wealth of the oceans do not get depleted. In addition, sustainable fishing methods and lessening our carbon footprint on the planet must be factors that are taken seriously.
Unless governments worldwide and citizens at large work towards a common goal of enforcing and monitoring stricter laws to prevent man-made disasters and natural ones, we may be unable to save the oceans for future generations.
Fortunately, there is a glimmer of hope. Marine conservation agencies and institutes are working to design better protection for at least a quarter of the ecosystems in various marine bio-geographic regions around the world in a strategic and scientific manner. This may help us recover and restore marine life so that climate change becomes an issue that is easier for us to tackle.