Climate change is right now assaulting the Pacific


In my last blog post, I discussed how Pope Francis’ call for worldwide action on global warming is a game-changer. It’s also worth noting the remarkable depth of his encyclical on the environment that was published last week. In addition to confirming the consensus among the world’s leading scientists on climate change, Francis also covered a wide range of interlocking issues that affect the environment. In particular, he wrote at length about the assault on our oceans, from floating cesspools of trash and filth and industrial waste to the perils of overfishing.

Here, for example, are the pope’s observations on how global warming is affecting the acidic levels of the sea: “Carbon dioxide pollution increases the acidification of the oceans and compromises the marine food chain. If present trends continue, this century may well witness…an unprecedented destruction of ecosystems, with serious consequences for all of us.”

Notes the website ThinkProgress:

The ocean absorbs at least one quarter of emitted carbon dioxide, which increases the acidity of seawater through chemical reactions. Many marine species are highly sensitive to these changes, as they can only tolerate narrow ranges of pH. Oysters, clams and other shellfish are especially vulnerable because acidification make it more difficult for them to form the calcium carbonate that comprises their shells. Corals also struggle to build their skeletons in acidified water, to the detriment of the highly diverse array of species that depend on coral reefs.

The sea is very important to me personally. I spend a lot of time in the water for recreation — sailing and scuba diving. And so the threat to our oceans, both from conventional pollution and from global warming, is something that deeply affects and alarms me. Just as the pope’s encyclical was making headlines, I noticed that skyrocketing water temperatures in the Pacific Ocean are causing new environmental headaches:

Commercial and recreational fisheries up and down the West Coast have been forced to close as a result of a massive toxic algal bloom, which scientists are describing as one of the largest in history.

“We have received reports of this particular bloom causing problems as far south as Monterey Bay and we’ve heard from our colleagues in Homer, Alaska that they’re seeing these cells,” Vera Trainer, manager of the Marine Biotoxin Program at NOAA’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center, told ThinkProgress. “It’s geographically very widespread, more so than we’ve seen in the past.”

The last time an algal bloom of comparative size occurred on the West Coast was in 1988. That bloom stretched from San Diego up to Washington.

Algal blooms happen when microscopic marine algae — also known as phytoplankton — proliferate in huge numbers. This proliferation results in a buildup of toxins such as domoic acid, a powerful and fatal neurotoxin. High concentrations of algae — or domoic acid — aren’t uncommon, occurring in the Pacific primarily in the fall, when ocean temperatures tend to be at their warmest. But according to Dan Ayers, coastal shellfish manager with the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, to see such an intense and extensive concentration of toxic algae in the late spring and summer months is more rare.

There’s little doubt that blame rests with the hot Pacific waters, which in turn are influenced by global warming and the drought that’s plaguing California and the American West. Notes the Los Angeles Times:

A “warm blob” of water that’s been stubbornly idle off the Pacific Coast this year may be contributing to the bloom’s size and staying power, said Clarissa Anderson, a researcher with UC Santa Cruz’s Institute of Marine Sciences.

The blob could be “limiting the natural exchange of waters and not allowing the bloom to be pushed offshore as often happens from coastal winds in other years,” Anderson said in an email.

“This is unprecedented in terms of the extent and magnitude of this harmful algal bloom and the warm water conditions we’re seeing off shore,” Vera Trainer, a manager with the Marine Microbes and Toxins Program at the Northwest Fisheries Science Center in Seattle, said in a statement.

It’s not hard to understand why Pope Francis wrote with such great urgency — because the severe impacts of climate change are hurting us today — not 30 or 40 years down the road. You have to wonder when and how the world’s political leaders will understand and feel the pressing need for action.

Here’s ThinkProgress on Pope Francis’ encyclical and ocean pollution:

Read news coverage of the killer algae bloom off the U.S. West Coast:

Check out more reporting about the Pacific Ocean toxic algae bloom from the Los Angeles Times:

I call for a bolder approach to climate change and de-emphasizing fossil fuels in my new book, Crude Justice: How I Fought Big Oil and Won, and What You Should Know About the New Environmental Attack on America:

© Stuart H. Smith, LLC 2015 – All Rights Reserved

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Stuart H. Smith is an attorney based in New Orleans fighting major oil companies and other polluters.
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