Friday, August 1, 2014

The Ocean is Broken

We are at the Byron Bay Writers Festival and listening to Tim Flannery and Lisa-ann Gershwin discuss the oceans and their fate.  Tim Flannery is no stranger to this audience and receives a warm welcome.  He starts the discussion by reminding us that the ocean is 500 times bigger than the atmosphere and hence holds more dissolved gasses.  Much of the carbon dioxide that is released by us into the atmosphere dissolves into oceans, rivers and lakes.  Increased acidity upsets the ecological balance and results in many harmful outcomes such as coral bleaching, one of the reasons the Great Barrier Reef is at risk. 

He discusses the fact that many scientists believe we are on the cusps of a sixth mass extinction, which could wipe out most of life on Earth as we know it.  A mass extinction happens when over 75% of all species die in a period that is less than 2 million years.  We have had 5 mass extinctions on Earth over the past 540 million years and many of these have involved loss of life in the oceans.  The problem with change in the oceans is that it is irreversible.

Acidic water is corrosive to many species such as corals, who cannot survive when calcium levels in the water go down.  Many other species such as shellfish are also affected and when their numbers go down, their predators die also.  I think you get the gist.  I’ve done a bit of research on this since coming back.  The oceans have absorbed about 30% of the CO2 emitted by humans.  This amounts to approximately a million tons an hour!  While this is great for life on land, it is death for life at sea. 

At the session is also Lisa-ann Gershwin talks about her book, Stung.  She is often referred to as the Stinger Lady and enlightens us on jellyfish blooms, something we had not known about previously.  She talks about the dead zones in the oceans where the blooms are most likely to occur.  We are quite surprised to hear that a massive jellyfish bloom in Western Australia of sea tomato jellyfish covered the oceans from Broome to Exmouth for 13 months.  She says they were so huge you could see them from space.  If our oceans continue to warm this will be a huge issue and impact not just our ecosystems but also our economy!  Like the dying coral, the jellyfish are another indicator that something is wrong with our oceans.  Too much nutrients, warming water, not enough oxygen, a reduction of predators are only some of the reasons for the over abundance of this species. 

Tim Flannery says there are enough signs out there to indicate something is amiss with the oceans.  He talks about the West Antarctic ice sheet, which is now dislodged and could collapse at any point.  We know the ocean is warming and Tim indicates that an increase of 1.5 degrees in the oceans could see the demise of the Great Barrier Reef.  He discusses other factors such as the dumping and dredging of the coal industry, which is also adding fuel to the fire.  The current government continues to approve projects in the reef, which has caused our World Heritage Listing of this site to be in peril. 

It was an extremely enlightening and informative session and we walked away having learnt that the next 6 years were critical for action.

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