Thanks to climate change, the world’s oceans can’t breathe


Two of my passions in life, when it comes to recreation, are sailing and deep-sea diving. So, as you could imagine, the health of the world’s oceans is very important to me. Unfortunately, the medical report on the planet’s oceans has not been too good lately. Too much garbage has been dumped in our waters for too long — and the stunning result of that has been a massive slick of plastic and other wastes that has appeared in the heart of the Pacific Ocean. Then there was the Fukushima nuclear accident, which flooded the northern Pacific with water tainted by radiation.

But arguably nothing poses a greater threat to ocean health than climate change. The hotter temperatures — the result of man-made greenhouse gas pollution, mostly by burning fossil fuels — of recent years had warned the earth’s waters, causing sea levels to rise, But a new report says that warm oceans — which will have a profound effect on marine species, not to mention tropical storms — will have an additional health impact that hasn’t been getting very much attention:

While ocean deoxygenation is well established, a new study led by Matthew Long, an oceanographer at the National Center for Atmospheric Research, finds that climate change-driven oxygen loss is already detectable in certain swaths of ocean and will likely be “widespread” by 2030 or 2040.

Ultimately, Long told The Huffington Post, oxygen-deprived oceans may have “significant impacts on marine ecosystems” and leave some areas of ocean all but uninhabitable for certain species.

While some ocean critters, like dolphins and whales, get their oxygen by surfacing, many, including fish and crabs, rely on oxygen that either enters the water from the atmosphere or is released by phytoplankton via photosynthesis.

But as the ocean surface warms, it absorbs less oxygen. And to make matters worse, oxygen in warmer water, which is less dense, has a tough time circulating to deeper waters.

For their study, published in the journal Global Biogeochemical Cycles, Long and his team used simulations to predict ocean deoxygenation through 2100. 

“Since oxygen concentrations in the ocean naturally vary depending on variations in winds and temperature at the surface, it’s been challenging to attribute any deoxygenation to climate change,” Long said in a statement. “This new study tells us when we can expect the impact from climate change to overwhelm the natural variability.”

And we don’t have long.

The scientists found that serious impacts could be felt as early as 2030 or 2040 in the Pacific Ocean — especially the parts, unfortunately, that are closest to the continental United States and also to Hawaii. Other regions will feel the effects later — perhaps as late as 2100 in some corners of the world — but this threat to certain kinds of fish and other creatures that live beneath the surface is very real, unless humankind takes some immediate and serious action on climate change.

The good news on that front is that the American public should get a real choice on the nation’s future direction on global warming. One of the front-running presidential candidates, Republican Donald Trump, has for the most part denied the existence of climate change; the likely Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, has proposed forceful measures to deal with a very real problem. The bottom is this: Our slowly suffocating oceans need someone to speak out for them, because they don’t have much time.

Read about the report on oceans, climate change and shrinking oxygen levels from the Huffington Post:

Learn more about the need for worldwide action on 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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