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Ocean on the Edge

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Conservation | Top 10 Ocean Issues

Sunday, June 08, 2008


A special focus for our tenth anniversary

Since I’m a member of the Education Department at the Aquarium of the Pacific, I thought I’d start telling you some of the interesting facts and information that we are learning as we embark on our 10th anniversary year that kicks off this month.

Our new theme, which will be featured in our changing gallery, is “Ocean on the Edge,” which is meant to help educate the public about the condition in which the Earth and its ocean find themselves, and what we can do to make a positive difference that will reflect in helping save our environment.

To start out, I learned that we have only one ocean on this planet, as all areas that we know by different names are interconnected, and what happens in one part of the world ocean affects another–a big storm in the Northern Pacific, for example, creates great waves along Southern California shores in the winter, and summer waves here come from storms all the way down in New Zealand. (Did you know that it takes waves eight days to get from New Zealand storms to So Cal?)

The big issue for us to consider is global climate change, of which global warming is a part; some areas of the world are actually getting colder. The warming of our globe is, in part, a natural occurrence. Thanks to our advancements since the start of the Industrial Age, however, we humans have exacerbated the situation and are causing the process to progress more rapidly; if we don’t start doing something about it right away, we may doom future generations to a far less livable planet.

Some important effects of global climate change on the ocean include the warming of the upper ocean, sea level rise, coral bleaching, ocean acidification, and the intensification of tropical storms.

The greenhouse effect that is a part of this global warming process is created when most of the sun’s energy penetrates the Earth’s atmosphere, striking the planet, while some of the energy is reflected back into space. Some of the sun’s radiation that is passing through the atmosphere is absorbed as infrared radiation that is trapped by the atmosphere by greenhouse gas (GHG) molecules and by the Earth, warming not only the Earth but also the lower atmosphere.

In addition to the natural process, humans are helping speed up the process by creating such heat-trapping gases as:

  • Carbon dioxide from fossil fuel burning, deforestation, forest fires and carbon release from agricultural soils;
  • Methane from agriculture (livestock and rice), waste disposal (landfills and sewage treatment), and leakage of natural gas transmission lines; and
  • Nitrous oxide from internal combustion engines and the production of nitrogen fertilizer, nylon, and nitric acid.

Fossil fuel use for power and transportation is the greatest source of greenhouse gases that cause the warming of our globe and, in part, cause the warming of the upper ocean. An estimated 84 percent of the “heat” is taken up by the global ocean itself, and this can cause a lot of problems for the animals living therein, as their environment begins to change.

Something I found interesting about the entire process of the heating of our planet is that: * The world ocean has experienced a net warming of 0.11°F (0.06° C) to a depth of 10,000 feet (3,000 m) during the past 35 to 45 years. More than half of the increase in heat content has occurred in the upper 1,000 feet (300 m), which has warmed by 0.56° F (0.31° C). * Warming is occurring in all ocean basins and at much deeper depths than previously thought. These findings support the hypothesis that the ocean is taking up excess heat as the atmosphere warms.

A worst-case scenario is that if global warming increases over this century and the Greenland ice sheet melts, sea levels would rise 20 feet (6.1 meters) and dramatically redraw Earth’s map of landmass.

The projected globally-averaged sea level rise by the end of the 21st Century (6”-16”) would result in low-lying areas of land winding up under water. Did you know that such areas are right here in our country, in areas such as lands bordering the Gulf of Mexico as well as portions of Southern California and Florida?

Virtually all experts agree to a variety of frightening facts that include the following:

  • The Earth is warming
  • The Earth’s average temperature has increased by 1.2°F in the past century.
  • Global mean temperature is higher than any time in past 500 to 1,000 years.
  • Most of global mean temperature rise variability is caused by four factors: variability of solar output, major volcanic eruptions, anthropogenic sulfate aerosols, and GHGs.
  • The dramatic rise of global mean temperature in the past 30 years is due primarily to increased GHG concentrations, particularly CO2.
  • Humans are the driving force in this process.
  • Electricity generation is the largest single source of GHG emission; followed by transportation (#2), industry (#3), and residential and commercial buildings (#4).
  • In 2005 the U.S. pumped the equivalent of nearly 7 billion tons of CO2 into the atmosphere, or more than 2 billion tons from electricity generation.
  • About 70 percent of all our electrical energy comes from burning fossil fuels.
  • About 50 percent of all our electrical energy comes from burning coal at 500 coal-fired plants.
  • U.S. demand for electricity is expected to increase by nearly 50 percent by 2030 according to the U.S. Department of Energy.
  • Wind and solar supply less than 1 percent of the total electricity used in the U.S. today.
  • If wind were to meet the energy demand in 2005 of 4 million megawatt-hours with around-the-clock wind, it would have required wind farms covering 301,000 square miles, or 780,000 square kilometers, which is an area greater than the size of Texas.
  • Recent data show an unexpected rise in global emissions and a decline in energy efficiency.
  • China and India are the two big drivers of future increases in greenhouse gas emissions.
  • The U.S. and Europe spent more than a century growing wealthy by burning fossil fuels.
  • We already have an adequate portfolio of technologies to make large cuts in emissions.
  • No one technology can do the whole job—a variety of strategies will need to be used to stay on a path that avoids a CO2 doubling
  • We need aggressive application of existing technologies now as we invest in research and development to develop new energy technologies…
  • Unless measures are taken to reduce GHG emissions, global mean temperature will continue to increase, about 2.5° to 9° F over the next century, depending on how much GHG is released.
  • In order to avoid a doubling of atmospheric CO2, we need to rapidly deploy low-carbon energy technologies and/or enhance natural sinks.
  • Sea level has risen by 2.7” over the past 40 years; a little more than 1” of this in past decade.
  • Sea level will rise by 6” to 16” over the next century–and much more if large continental ice sheets become unstable.
  • Arctic sea ice has decreased by 15 percent to 20 percent since satellite measurements began in 1978.

Sure sounds scary, doesn’t it? But remember, each and every one of us can do something about this. Suggested actions that you can take include reducing your use of fossil fuels, cleaning and replacing air filters, buying and using energy efficient compact fluorescent light bulbs, insulating your home’s water heater, avoiding purchasing products containing chlorofluorocarbons (also known as CFCs), educating yourself and others about global climate change, and letting your elected representatives know what you think should be done about global warming.

Now, even if each of us does only a few things, here and there, the cumulative effect of our actions can and will make a difference. Don’t you think you should start saving the planet right away? Together, we can do wonders.

Until next time, when I discuss some of the other issues affecting our world ocean, I leave you with one thought, which I got from one of my volunteers. As a signature to his e-mails, Norm writes, “Reduce, reuse, recycle … and rethink!” If we rethink how we do everything we do, being mindful of the needs of the Earth, we can make the appropriate changes needed to help save our planet!

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Thursday, June 12, 2008 06:08 PM

I dont want our global inviorment to get ruined if it get worse anymore in gonna freak…

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Friday, June 13, 2008 07:52 PM

Yes, Sletine, I know what you mean as far as freaking out over the problems with our planet, but instead of doing that, why don’t you try educating others about the problems and what we can do to slow down and hopefully reverse it all?  Recycling, conserving water, using compact fluorescent light bulbs, and driving less ... all these things will help.

So instead of worrying about it all, take some action along with the rest of us who are conscious of the problems and working to make a positive difference for our environment.  That should help you feel a little better, don’t ya think?

All blogs and comments represent the views of the individual authors and not necessarily those of the Aquarium.

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