SOLUTIONS 5/13: The oceans, too


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By Huck Fairman

Many who can read and who respect science understand that we are warming the Earth, very possibly to a catastrophic level.

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Those not concerned may want to read a research piece in SCIENCE, “Avoiding Ocean Mass Extinction From Climate Warming.”

Written by two Princeton University researchers, Professor of Geosciences Curtis Deutsch and postdoctoral Dr. Justin Penn, their findings warn that we are at a moment, depending on decisions made, when we can “affect the very future of life on Earth.”

If we allow the continued level of fossil fuel usage, we should expect it to “trigger ocean species loss” by the end of our century, on the level of the five mass extinctions in the planet’s past – the last of which wiped out the dinosaurs.

If this seems too distant in the future, a second NY Times report alerts us to the current eradication of sea kelp along the northern California coast that has occurred in less than 10 years. And this sea kelp had fed and protected a wide range of sea life – now also disappearing.

This disappearance along the California coast had an even more devastating precursor 252 million years ago, the Great Dying, which “claimed more than 90% of species in the oceans.”

The cause of that die-off was global warming from volcanic eruptions. “The oceans lost oxygen and fish succumbed to heat stress, asphyxiation or both.”

Now ocean life is again vulnerable to not only warming but to acidification, increasing amounts of carbon dioxide, and low levels of oxygen. As has been widely reported, coral reefs are in steep decline.

Where oceans have long acted as a “quiet safeguard against climate change, absorbing vast amounts of carbon dioxide and heat,” last year the cost came due: the oceans reached their highest temperatures and lowest oxygen levels since record keeping began.

Despite these measurable changes, nations are still far from taking the necessary, preventative steps. Last month, the Secretary General of the United Nations, Antonio Guterres, warned that the critical temperature level that we need to not exceed was “on life support.”

The International Energy Agency, created to ensure stable energy markets, urged nations to stop approving new fossil fuel projects. But that has not happened. The invasion of Ukraine has resulted in more calls to drill.

Professor Deutsche and Dr. Penn find that their research indicates that “the planet is at a pivotal moment, giving people living today outsized power in determining the future.” Perhaps most vulnerable are the marine species already reduced in numbers and whose habitats, along with the species themselves, are threatened with extinction.

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