A Scary Report Card on the World’s Oceans

A Scary Report Card on the Worlds Oceans
Work in environmental journalism for very long and you can eventually
become inured to catastrophe. Every ecosystem is on the brink of
collapse; every endangered species is just a few steps from extinction;
every government decision to authorize an oil well or a coal mine is the
one that will push carbon emissions over the edge. The language of
environmentalism is the language of scarcity and loss, a constantly
repeated message that we cannot continue living the way we are…or
else. Sometimes the sheer, relentless doomsaying is enough to make you
want to take a long, air-conditioned drive in a nice SUV.

But while news of the Earth’s impending doom can sometimes seem
exaggerated, there’s one environmental disaster that never gets the
coverage it really deserves: the state of the oceans. Most people know
that wild fisheries are dwindling, and we might know that low-oxygen
aquatic dead zones are blooming around the planet’s most crowded coasts.
But the oceans are appear to be undergoing fundamental changes—many of
them for the worse—that we can barely understand, in part because we
barely understand that vast blue territory that covers 70% of the globe. That’s the conclusion of a surprising new report issued by the
International Programme on the State of the Ocean , a global panel
of marine experts that met earlier this year at Oxford University to
examine the latest science on ocean health. That health, they found, is
not good. According to the authors, we are “at high risk for entering a
phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.”
It’s not just about overfishing or marine pollution or even climate
change. It’s all of those destructive factors working cumulatively, and
occurring much more rapidly than scientists had expected. “The findings
are shocking,” said Alex Rogers, the scientific director of IPSO. “We
are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our
lifetime, and worse, our children’s and generations beyond that.”

What’s particularly scary is that while we can be sure we’re changing
the ocean, it’s not so easy to measure the extent of the damage or
predict how it will unfold, simply because the observations are harder
to make underwater than they are on land. It’s not just a
matter of taking bluefin tuna and other valuable species out of the
oceans through industrial fishing. The more worrying changes are
happening on a chemical level. The oceans have already absorbed more
than 80% of the additional heat added to the climate system, and around
33% of the carbon dioxide we’ve emitted into the atmosphere. That’s
slowed down climate change on land, but it’s also changing the pH levels
of the water in ways that could have a bigger impact on sea life than a
thousand factory-fishing boats.