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Environment Week 2013: Oceans at risk like never before

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June 5 is World Environment Day and June 8 is World Oceans Day, with the full week marked in Canada by legislation as Environment Week.

Under other prime ministers, Environment Week was a big deal. When I worked for Tom McMillan, environment minister under former prime minister Brian Mulroney, Environment Canada distributed $1 million in funding to community and environmental groups across Canada for community awareness-raising activities during Environment Week. This effort to give very small grants to groups across Canada for Environment Week continued under prime ministers Chrétien and Martin. No more.

The focus on June 8 on our oceans is a rare time when we actually turn our attention to the source of life on earth. As terrestrial creatures, we tend to forget that life on dry land is not possible without life in our oceans. Our survival is intimately connected to the oceans for the protein we consume from the fisheries, for the role played by oceans in carbon sequestration and moderating climate, among other essential functions.

The threats to the health of our oceans are growing as never before. As the excellent report from Justice Bruce Cohen on the fate of the wild British Columbia salmon pointed out, the threats are multiple and complex. The Cohen report enumerated the threats to salmon, closely mirroring the threats throughout the oceans: land-based sources of marine pollution, over-fishing, climate change, aquaculture operations, loss of habitat, to name a few. The fact that the federal fisheries minister has still not responded to this landmark report does not bode well.

Warming waters

Among the many threats, as Justice Cohen noted, the growth of greenhouse gases in the atmosphere is the greatest threat of all. The impacts of climate change on the ocean are as complex as the myriad interconnected threats from all the other reckless actions of humanity.

Warmer water has immediate negative impacts on some critical ecosystems. In the tropics, warmer water triggers bleaching of coral reefs, ending the life in those extraordinarily biologically diverse bits of paradise.

In Canada, warmer inland waters, particularly in critical salmon habitat in rivers and streams, essentially eliminate salmon habitat. Salmon are entirely dependent on cool waters for spawning and for the new fry to travel safely out to sea.

And, of course, in our Arctic waters, global warming is causing dramatic and dangerous loss of Arctic ice. The impacts on ecosystems are profound. The loss of ice has local effects, such as threatening the survival of polar bears and the Inuit traditional way of life. It also has global effects, such as driving the climate into new extremes of life-threatening intense storms, heat waves, and droughts.

Ocean acidification

Perhaps the most devastating threat created by our collective failure to effectively limit the growth in greenhouse gas emissions is that of ocean acidification. The increased level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is transferring carbon to our oceans. The gases in the atmosphere and water mix. Carbon moves from atmosphere to ocean. Most of this transfer has been beneficial in playing a critical role in pulling carbon from the atmosphere.

Over the last 200 years, it is estimated that the oceans have absorbed about one-third of all the greenhouse gases released through human activity. Certainly, the climate crisis would be more aggressive and dangerous if the oceans had not been providing this key "netting out" effect.

However, as that carbon loading has continued unabated, the carbon in the ocean is changing the chemistry of ocean water. Generally, ocean water is alkaline (or basic). However, as carbon mixes and changes in its chemistry, it becomes carbonic acid. Over time, the ocean is becoming acidified.

The impact of ocean acidification is already having measurable impacts in weakening the shells of crustaceans. All crustaceans need carbonate in order to build shells, but carbonic acid is corrosive to crustacean shells.

The potential assault on all crustaceans would have a devastating impact on the food chain, ultimately threatening all life in the ocean. As the head of the NOAA (the United States National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration), Jane Lubchenco, told the National Geographic, ocean acidification is the "equally evil twin" of the climate crisis.

As a society, we are failing to confront even those manageable and local impacts of treating the oceans as a resource so abundant that we make the mistake of assuming it to be infinite. As we cannot manage the conventional threats, little wonder we turn a blind eye to the threat posed by our use of the atmosphere as a free dump for fossil fuel pollution to the life in our oceans.

Originally published in Embassy News.

Photo: Mike Baird/flickr

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