Sunday, November 17, 2019

Waterboarding Flounder

"Serious oxygen loss between 100 and 600-meter depths is expected to cover 59–80% of the ocean area by 2031– 2050"



If you have ever
been in a smoke-filled room and wanted nothing more than to go outside and get a breath of fresh air, you can relate to the experience of your average flounder.

It’s floundering.

Fish don't breathe air, but they still take in oxygen dissolved in the water around them, and if those oxygen levels drop too low, they can strangle.

When we try to think about the effect of the climate emergency on oceans, we tend to imagine warming seas, bleaching corals, algae blooms, super-hurricanes, and inundating coastlines. We don’t often think about oxygen. And yet, major extinction events in Earth’s history have generally been associated with oxygen-starved oceans, most often during climate change epochs.

In the process of  absorbing a majority of the excess carbon dioxide we’ve produced, the open ocean gave up an estimated 2 percent, or 77 billion metric tons, of its oxygen over the past 50 years. That is an astonishing number, but one seldom noticed unless you are a water-breather.

Oxygen levels at a depth of 300 m in the Baltic Sea

Proc. Natl. Acad. Sci. U.S.A. 111, 56285633 (2014). Red = OMZ; Black = Anoxic
As a result, oxygen-minimum zones (OMZs) expanded to cover areas in aggregate about the size of the European Union (4.5 million square kilometers). Anoxic dead zones (devoid of oxygen) have more than quadrupled. For your average fish, this means trying to steer clear of OMZs and dead zones, mainly along the coasts where corals and mangroves once provided optimal conditions for life but now suffer inundations of topsoil, agricultural chemicals, plastics, radioactivity, and deadly algal blooms. Adaptive avoidance patterns make the schools easy targets for the sophisticated sonar systems and satellite services affordable to every fishing boat. Fisherman merely glide to the edges of oxygen-starved zones and wait for the catch to come to them.

Just the upper 3300 feet of ocean has lost up to 3.3% of its oxygen since 1960. If you are at sea level, the air you breathe is about 20% oxygen. Removing 3.3% would be like hiking up 5000 feet. That is still breathable—similar to the summit of Mt. Washington, New Hampshire—but consider that the recent 3.3% change was over just the past 60 years, and is accelerating. There might be an 6 or 8% difference from the 20th Century in another 30 years, which would be like climbing Pike’s Peak. We can still breathe, but for how much longer? At 10 or 12 percent deficit we would need to bring oxygen tanks to climb any higher. What is a flounder going to do?

If we are concerned, and we should be, there are things we can do right now to reverse this. The IPCC’s Special Report on Ocean and Cryosphere, released earlier this year, said:
Increased nutrient and organic matter loads in estuaries since the 1970s from intensive human development and riverine loads have exacerbated the stimulating effects of ocean warming on bacterial respiration, leading to expansion of low oxygen areas.

The first thing we can do, then, is arrest nutrient runoff into rivers and estuaries. A number of cities are using large biochar filters to span urban outfalls, intercepting nitrogen and the particulates that biochar is so good at capturing, adhering, and storing.

IPCC reports that serious oxygen loss at between 100 and 600-meter depths (328 to 1970 feet) is expected to cover 59–80% of the ocean area by 2031– 2050. While some of that can be attributed to algae blooms deriving from all the fertilizer washing off land (extreme rain events boost the effect), the 400 lb. gorilla in the room is climate change. If we want to slow the process, we’ll need to address that.

A review by Denise Breitburg and 21 co-authors in the January 2018 issue of Science observed that ocean warming reduces the solubility of oxygen.
Decreasing solubility is estimated to account for ~15% of current total global oxygen loss and >50% of the oxygen loss in the upper 1000 m. of the ocean. Warming also raises metabolic rates, thus accelerating the rate of oxygen consumption. Therefore, decomposition of sinking particles occurs faster, and remineralization of these particles is shifted toward shallower depths, resulting in a spatial redistribution but not necessarily a change in the magnitude of oxygen loss. Intensified stratification may account for the remaining 85% of global ocean oxygen loss by reducing ventilation—the transport of oxygen into the ocean interior.…
Breitburg and colleagues make a number of excellent recommendations:
Local, national, and global efforts are required to limit further oxygen declines, restore oxygen to previously well-oxygenated environments, and enhance the resilience of ecosystems affected by deoxygenation. At their most basic level, the actions needed to address deoxygenation — reducing nutrient loads to coastal waters and reducing greenhouse gas emissions globally — have substantial benefits to society above and beyond improving oxygen conditions. Improved sanitation can benefit human health directly while also reducing coastal nutrient loads. Eliminating excess and inefficiently applied fertilizer can reduce costs to farmers and emissions of N2O and may decrease nitrogen loads to waterways. Eliminating emissions from combustion of fossil fuels can reduce greenhouse gas production and may result in decreased atmospheric deposition of nitrogen that stimulates primary production in coastal waters. Reducing or eliminating greenhouse gas emissions can, more generally, lower the threats from global warming and ocean acidification and, simultaneously, reduce ocean deoxygenation. Improved management of fisheries and marine habitats that are sensitive to the development and effects of low oxygen helps to protect economies, livelihoods, and food security.



While some long-term marine ecosystem changes cannot be avoided, others are yet reversible if we act quickly. So, for instance, if we follow the recipe laid out by Kathleen Draper and I in Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth (Chelsea Green 2019), we could within a few decades be withdrawing 50 or more billion metric tons of carbon dioxide (50 GtCO2) from the atmosphere (and oceans) annually through a new, regenerative, revitalizing, circular carbon economy, using processes we’ve termed carbon cascades, tailored to target the Sustainable Development Goals. If at the same time nations muster the will, such as through meetings like the upcoming COP25-Madrid, to halve emissions from 39 GtCO2 to 20 GtCO2, we could be net subtracting 30 GtCO2 annually.

That might give our friends the flounders a breather.



You encourage me to do more and then tell you about it. Help me get my blog posted every week. Kathleen Draper and I will be attending the climate summit in Madrid and giving talks there. All Patreon donations and Blogger subscriptions are needed and welcomed. Those are how we make this happen. PowerUp! donors on Patreon get an autographed book off each first press run. Please help if you can.




Sunday, November 10, 2019

Of Warnings and their Ripple Effects

"We need wooden ships, char-crete buildings, bamboo bicycles, moringa furniture, and hemp clothing. We need to elegantly craft those things to last for centuries."

Greta Thunberg appearing  before the House Ways and Means Committee on September 18, 2019, based  upon a photo by Alden Meyer, Union of Concerned Scientists

In her testimony to the US Congress, Greta Thunberg did not prepare a statement for submission to the record. Instead, she submitted the most recent scientific report, issued by the IPCC three weeks earlier. She said simply, “I am submitting this report as my testimony because I don’t want you to listen to me, I want you to listen to the scientists, and I want you to unite behind the science.  And then I want you to take real action. Thank you.”

Alden Meyer, an elder statesman of environmental advocacy that I have been running into at every climate meeting since Rio in 1992, called it the shortest and most powerful testimony he has heard anyone give in Congress during his decades in Washington.

This week another headline blazed across newspapers and social media sites: World Scientists Warn of Climate Emergency.

Reading this newest installment in ecologist William Ripple’s series was a mixed experience for me. On the one hand, I was delighted that he and Chris Wolf at Oregon State, Tom Newsome at the University of Sydney, Phoebe Barnard at Conservation Biology Institute and the University of Capetown, and Bill Moomaw at Tufts were able to enlist 11,258 co-signatories from 153 countries for their paper published in BioScience on November 5th

The first such warning, organized by Alden Meyer and the Union of Concerned Scientists in 1992, had 1,575 prominent scientists, including the majority of living Nobel laureates, co-sign. The second, by Ripple, Wolf, et al in BioScience in 2017, had 15,364 signatories from 184 countries, which begs the question: Why fewer this year?

In my humble opinion, the problem with this warning, and perhaps also why it is shedding supporters, is that it says all the right things but feels like it is speaking to an empty room. It has all been said before. I confess I have the same issue with street protests. Somewhere in the world, there may be someone who has never heard of climate change or doesn’t take it seriously, and might change their thinking after seeing a million people in the streets, but frankly, I don’t know who that person is or whether they are worth the effort. 

It is all well and good to engage in awareness-raising, but at some point, you have to put down the placard and actually do something about the situation. 

The issues identified by Ripple

The Scientists’ Warning is that we humans are either threatening or have already collapsed several essential prerequisites for continued human existence on Earth. The 1992 report cited ozone depletion, declining freshwater availability, unsustainable marine fisheries, ocean dead zones, forest loss, dwindling biodiversity, climate change, and population growth as shocking indicators that should stir us all to action.

Hothouse Earth by Steffen, et al, 2018
The 2017 report spotlighted climate change as the most likely to do us all in, but also drew attention to deforestation and agricultural production—particularly from farming ruminants for meat consumption—as if they were separate, and also decried the Sixth mass extinction event. The 2019 report again hones in on climate change as our biggest problem, but this time connects the dots to human population, total fertility rate, ruminant livestock population, per capita meat production, world gross domestic product, global tree cover loss, Brazilian Amazon forest loss, energy consumption, air transport, divestment, global CO2 emissions, per capita CO2 emissions, greenhouse gas emissions covered by carbon pricing, fossil fuel subsidies, atmospheric CO2 , atmospheric methane, atmospheric nitrous oxide, surface temperature change, minimum Arctic sea ice, Greenland ice mass, Antarctica ice mass, cumulative glacier thickness change, ocean heat content, ocean acidity, extreme weather events (frequency and economic losses), sea-level change, and total area burned by wildfires—as all part of that one big problem we have yet to face. Somehow they completely overlooked plastics.

Okay, so we are warned. Now what? My gripe with protest movements, even by distinguished scientists, is that even if they succeed beyond their wildest expectations and topple governments, they don’t have either an agreed plan to replace the current system or a transition roadmap to follow. Ripple says:
“Governmental bodies are making climate emergency declarations. Schoolchildren are striking. Ecocide lawsuits are proceeding in the courts. Grassroots citizen movements are demanding change….”
Yes, all true. So then what? 

The 2019 report says “The climate crisis is closely linked to excessive consumption of the wealthy lifestyle.” Well, that is very true and surprisingly honest. I imagine most in Extinction Rebellion would agree with that. I also imagine most scientists who signed this would cluster among the top 1% most wealthy individuals on the planet. Ripple, et al, then opine:

To secure a sustainable future, we must change how we live, in ways that improve the vital signs summarized by our graphs. Economic and population growth are among the most important drivers of increases in CO2 emissions from fossil fuel combustion; therefore, we need bold and drastic transformations regarding economic and population policies. We suggest six critical and interrelated steps (in no particular order) that governments, businesses, and the rest of humanity can take to lessen the worst effects of climate change. These are important steps but are not the only actions needed or possible.
The steps Ripple proposed are all good. They are strong, they are honest, and they are realistic:

Energy: leave remaining stocks of fossil fuels in the ground and replace them with massive energy efficiency, conservation practices, and clean energy. 

CDR (Carbon Dioxide Removal): While this is buried in the energy section, Ripple et al advocate we “carefully pursue effective negative emissions using technology such as carbon extraction from the source [biochar, straw buildings, holistic management] and capture from the air and especially by enhancing natural systems.”

Slash short-lived pollutants: By sharply curtailing emissions of methane, soot, and hydrofluorocarbons (refrigerants) we could potentially reduce the short-term warming trend by more than 50% over the next few decades, Ripple says. 

Rescue nature: We need more phytoplankton, coral reefs, forests, savannas, grasslands, wetlands, peatlands, soils, mangroves, and sea grasses. We need reforestation and afforestation at enormous scales. Going by the calculations the late Frank Michael and I made ten years ago, now repeatedly confirmed, we need to add roughly four Spains in additional global forest annually; a trillion trees per decade. There is no map to avert Hothouse Earth that does not include this.

Food: The scientists suggest “eating mostly plant-based foods while reducing the global consumption of animal products, especially ruminant livestock,” and eliminating food waste. “Cropping practices … that increase soil carbon are vitally important. “ This needs to be unpacked a little because in my view the problem is less about animals as food than about feeding them grains. Until wild stocks can be rebuilt, domestic livestock are vital surrogates in natural ecosystems.

World Water Crisis — The New York Times 6 Aug 2019
Population
: “[W]orld population must be stabilized—and, ideally, gradually reduced—within a framework that ensures social integrity.” Amen. Probably needs to be lower than most are ready to acknowledge, and will get there by unhappy means unless a graceful glide path is selected and followed assiduously.

Economy: This is possibly the biggest sticking point, so let’s quote the entire warning by the scientists:
Excessive extraction of materials and overexploitation of ecosystems, driven by economic growth, must be quickly curtailed to maintain the long-term sustainability of the biosphere. We need a carbon-free economy that explicitly addresses human dependence on the biosphere and policies that guide economic decisions accordingly. Our goals need to shift from GDP growth and the pursuit of affluence toward sustaining ecosystems and improving human well-being by prioritizing basic needs and reducing inequality. (emphasis added)
Now that is a very noble statement and one that drives to the core of the denialist and obstructionist agenda. One of neoliberalism’s most benighted spokesmen, Bill Clinton, famously said, “You can’t get elected by promising people less.” He could have easily as said, you can’t win over an audience by insulting their religion. The religion of the consumer culture (now global) is growth. More. Then more. Then still more. The Scientists’ Warning, after pleading with everyone to do with less, says:
“The good news is that such transformative change, with social and economic justice for all, promises far greater human well-being than does business as usual.”
The statement may be absolutely true, and it is a philosophy I have been flogging for the past 40 years, but it makes very little difference. To get the needed change now, at this late hour, will require far greater sacrifice than possibly any human society has ever shown before. Go to the darkest days of the London Blitz or the Siege of Leningrad and multiply that times ten. We have to cut emissions in half by 2030, half again by 2040, and to net-zero by 2050. That means switching energy systems to clean and renewable, surely, but it also means no more air travel. No more fleets of aircraft carriers and B52 bombers. Sail-powered commerce across oceans. Solar-powered rail across continents. Just as in the Special Period in Cuba following the collapse of the Soviet Union, imagine food calories cut by a third. The longer we delay, the steeper the descent.



Last week, Ida Auken, Member of the Danish Parliament (Folketinget), writing for the World Economic Forum borrowed a page from Transition Network to try to imagine the world of 2030 that we could have. She called it “CO-topia.”
It is cheaper for you not to own your own car, which, in turn, reduces congestion so you arrive at your destination more easily and quickly and don’t have to spend time looking for somewhere to park. You can also choose to travel by bike, scooter or public transit. 

The air you breathe in the city is cleaner because there are far fewer cars on the streets and the rest are electric – all electricity is green in fact. There is less noise and much more space for parks and pedestrian streets since all the parking space became available. For lunch you can choose from dozens of exciting meals – most of them are plant-based, so you eat more healthily and are more environmentally friendly than when lunch meant choosing between five types of burger.

Single-use plastics are a distant memory. You still grab a to-go coffee, but it comes in a reusable cup that you turn in at the next coffee shop to get your deposit back. The same system applies to plastic bottles and other take-away containers. At home, all of your household appliances have been turned into service contracts. If your dishwasher is about to break down, it is no longer your problem. The service provider already knows about the problem and has sent someone to fix it. When the machine no longer works, the provider picks up the old machine and installs a new one.

People are trying out new types of living arrangements with more shared functions and spaces. This means that more people can afford to live in cities. More houses are built with wood, which makes them nicer to live in and much better for the climate than concrete buildings.

When you buy something, you buy something that lasts; you buy it because you really need it and want to take care of it. But because you buy far fewer things, you can actually afford products of better quality and design.  


***

Much of the land formerly used to produce animal feedstock has become available. As people in cities have started to value going into nature, tourism, hunting and angling now offer new types of income for people living in rural areas. Forests and nature are again spreading across the globe. People travel more in their region and by train, so air traffic has started to decline. Most airlines have switched to electrofuels, biofuels or electricity. 

Best of all, because citizens have stopped buying so much stuff, they have more money to spend on other things. This new disposable income is spent on services: cleaning, gardening, help with laundry, healthy and easy meals to cook, entertainment, experiences and fabulous new restaurants. All of these things give the average modern person more options and more free time to spend with their friends and families, working out, learning new skills, playing sports or making art – you name it and there’s more time to do it.
If we consider what the future could be, picking up the mantle against climate change may not seem so bad after all.
Rather than “a carbon-free economy,” during all that heroic deprivation we must strive to create a carbon-intensive economy, as Kathleen Draper and I argued in Burn: Using Fire to Cool the Earth. We need to start intercepting carbon before it gets back to the atmosphere and instead incorporate it into everything we build, buy, or clothe ourselves with. We need wooden ships, char-crete buildings, bamboo bicycles, moringa furniture, and hemp clothing. We need to elegantly craft those things to last for centuries.

As Daniel Christian Wahl describes it, what is required is a new regenerative economy:
At the heart of true transformation is always a release of patterns that no longer serve — a dying of a former self or way of being — and simultaneously a living into new patterns — a being born into a new cycle of existence. We are challenged collectively to fundamentally redesign the human presence and impact on Earth within the life-time of the generations alive today. In doing so, we have — as Joanna Macy has put it — the dual role of acting as hospice workers and midwifes. We have to give care to a dying system while simultaneously co-creating a life sustaining human presence on Earth.
One of the leading lights showing the way individuals can do something right now is Nori. You can go to nori.com on your phone and purchase carbon removal for your past month, or your past year, or your whole next year. The calculator on the Nori site helps you estimate your footprint based on what you did or plan to do. Then Nori arranges to pay carbon sequestrators to retrieve your carbon back from the atmosphere and put it somewhere it will stay and won’t go back. Nori already does, or may eventually do, all of those CDR strategies that politicians aren't even talking about yet. Doing just that simple 5-minute exercise on your phone can do much more for the planet than getting arrested with Jane Fonda or publishing yet another warning signed by umpty-ump famous scientists.

The sacredness of our growth economy is precisely how Congressional deniers and delayers chose to attack the little Swedish mermaid as she sat defiantly before them in September. Their staunchest argument, their line drawn in the sand, was that the Paris Agreement is bad for the economy. Whose economy? What kind of economy is that, that is killing us all?

It is not the economy that Greta Thunberg’s generation wants. If they get their say, it is not the economy they will have. 
_____________
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Sunday, November 3, 2019

The Plastic - Climate Connection Runs Through Whales







"Restoring normal whale activity to the oceans would capture the CO2 equivalent of 2 billion trees. Our plastics threaten all that."

 

One of the most memorable thrills of my lifetime — there have been too many to easily remember — was my first swim with Atlantic whale sharks off of México, in the Straits of Cuba. My guide up on the boat motioned to me, treading water and scanning the horizon for any dorsal fins, to “dive, dive!” and I did, just in time to see a shark some 30 feet long, with an open mouth nearly 5 foot wide, converging directly on my position, at speed.

I dodged to my left as fast as I could, not hazarding the time it would take to bring my camera up and record the moment. By the time I positioned my small Canon point-and-shoot, the shark was past me, devouring plankton to the starboard of the boat. These giant sharks are herbivores, so he or she was probably trying to avoid me as much as I was trying to avoid him or her. Here is the picture I took:


Whale sharks (Rhincodon typus), currently on the Red List of threatened species, first appear in the geological record along with Manta rays, at the Eocene-Oligocene boundary about 34 million years ago. That was when one of the largest extinctions of marine invertebrates and mammals in Europe and Asia, likely triggered by volcanism, dropped Earth’s temperature some 15°C over just a few hundred thousand years, isolating a warm water niche near the equator at a time when the continents were much closer together. One relative of whale sharks is the Mesozoic plankton-feeding dinosaur, Megachasma (big mouth), which roamed the oceans 135 million years before Rhincodon typus. Whale sharks are 15 times older than we are, or about 100 times older than our current evolutionary form as Homo sapiens.

Whale sharks, which can live up to 130 years and grow 60 feet long, are well adapted to warming oceans. They are only rarely found in waters below 70°F (21°C) and have annual migration routes in both the Eastern and Western hemispheres, tracking plankton blooms to warming waters.

They are part of a growing repertoire of climate solutions.

Annual catch of Sei, Fin, and Blue Whales prior to IWC Moratorium in 1985
Toothed whales, as well as baleen whales, are descendants of land-dwelling mammals of the artiodactyl order (even-toed ungulates). Unlike the whale sharks, which use baleen to filter large volumes of water in order to feed, modern toothed cetaceans, including dolphins and porpoises, track prey using sonar. They echolocate by emitting a series of clicks at various frequencies from their melon-shaped foreheads that reflect off objects, and are retrieved through the lower jaw. Odontoceti (toothed cetaceans) also use enhanced fat synthesis — wax ester deposits nor branched fatty chain acids — to store calories in insulating blubber, giving them a wider range of habitats and greater depth of dive. Baleen whales and sharks never mastered that blubber trick and that keeps them in warmer surface waters.

Phytoplankton — those little green plants growing on the surface of fresh and salt waters — are highly efficient carbon sequestrators. Worldwide, their “biological carbon pump” transfers about 10 GtC (gigatons, or billion long tons, of carbon, or 37 GtCO2) from the atmosphere to the deep ocean each year. All human activity, from fossil fuel burning to soybean farming, adds about the same. Homo and phytoplankton are a matched respiratory cycle. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) recently observed:

These microscopic creatures not only contribute at least 50 percent of all oxygen to our atmosphere, they do so by capturing about 37 billion metric tons of CO2, an estimated 40 percent of all CO2 produced. To put things in perspective, we calculate that this is equivalent to the amount of CO2 captured by 1.70 trillion trees—four Amazon forests’ worth….

Until the industrial era, Phytoplankton were the thermostat that moderated human- or volcano-induced warming to maintain a balance between Iceball Earth and Hothouse Earth. Whenever river, lake or ocean surfaces began to warm, equatorial growths of plankton would speed up, converting carbon dioxide into oxygen and carbon. The oxygen would rise to the atmosphere, freshening our air, and the carbon would be eaten by fish like whale sharks or sea turtles or descend to the depths to decompose or be entombed.


Even small changes in the growth of phytoplankton may affect atmospheric carbon dioxide concentrations, which feed back to global surface temperatures. A very large change would occur if there were any significant loss of plankton-feeders. When a baleen whale scoops up plankton or a toothed cetacean rises to breathe, they also defalcate. The nitrogen, potassium and other important minerals in their excretions are food for the plankton bloom. Take away the whales, and you remove this important source of fertilizer. When a whale, turtle, shark, or dolphin dies, they sink to the ocean floor to be eaten, decompose, or be entombed in sediments. If the floor is deep enough, their carbon, as methane, is trapped and cannot rise to the surface and return to the atmosphere. Without these plankton-feeders, and those that feed on them, more plankton would decompose close to the surface, on their way to the depths, or in shallow sediments, returning their carbon to the atmosphere as carbon dioxide or methane. There would also be a substantial loss of the nutrient flows that fertilize plankton blooms, greatly reducing their extent.

The whales are sequestrators.

Scientists at the IMF have calculated the value of a whale at $2 million each due to the important role they have in reducing greenhouse gases. A Blue Whale, for example, can take nearly 30 metric tons of CO2 out of the atmosphere, for centuries, compared to the around 15 kg captured by a tree each year.

At a minimum, even a 1 percent increase in phytoplankton productivity thanks to whale activity would capture hundreds of millions of tons of additional CO2 a year, equivalent to the sudden appearance of 2 billion mature trees. Imagine the impact over the average lifespan of a whale, more than 60 years.

Our conservative estimates put the value of the average great whale, based on its various activities, at more than $2 million, and easily over $1 trillion for the current stock of great whales.    

We once had 5 million whales in all the world’s oceans. Today there are about 1.3 million. By the 1930s we were killing 50,000 per year, mostly for outdoor lighting and axle grease. Generating 50% of all oxygen and capturing 40% of CO2 produced, phytoplankton rely on whales to provide nutrients and maintain their numbers. If the number of whales was restored to around 5 million this would significantly increase phytoplankton numbers. Even a 1% increase in phytoplankton would capture millions of tons of additional CO2, says the IMF.


We estimate that, if whales were allowed to return to their pre-whaling numbers—capturing 1.7 billion tons of CO2 annually—it would be worth about $13 per person a year to subsidize these whales’ CO2 sequestration efforts.

Since the role of whales is irreplaceable in mitigating and building resilience to climate change, their survival should be integrated into the objectives of the 190 countries that in 2015 signed the Paris Agreement for combating climate risk.

Many of us labor under the illusion that whale populations are recovering since the International Whaling Commission put a moratorium in place in 1985/86. If, thanks in no small measure to Greenpeace and Sea Shepherd, whaling is largely curtailed today, having been reduced to renegade Japanese research vessels and coastal dolphin hunts, the populations should be recovering, right? Wrong.

Enter plastics. Globally, at least 23% of marine mammal species, 36% of seabird species, and 86% of sea turtle species are now threatened by plastic debris. So far, over 270 species, including turtles, fish, seabirds, and mammals, have been observed to have impaired movement, starvation, or death from exposure to plastics, although studies in the northern Gulf of California found that as few as one in every 50–250 (range: 0–6.2%) carcasses are recovered from cetacean deaths at sea. Some 300 other species of marine fauna are thought to be in jeopardy. (Laist 1997; Wabnitz and Nichols 2010; Williams 2011; Sigler 2014). Ingestion of plastic has been documented in 48 (56% of) cetacean species, with rates of ingestion as high as 31% in some populations (Baulch and Perry 2014).


Plastics are forever. Approximately, 10,000 shipping containers plummet off cargo ships into the ocean each year. A shipping crate carrying 28,000 plastic ducks was lost at sea between Hong Kong and the USA in the Pacific Ocean over 20 years ago but at least 2000 of the ducks are believed to be still circulating, while others have been found washed ashore in Hawaii, Alaska, South America, Australia, and the Pacific Northwest.


We are increasing not only the amount of plastic in the environment, including microplastics prone to ingestion by baleen filter-feeders, but the rate by which that amount is growing. We are just at the upward turning junction of the J-curve. In the 1960s, 5 million tons of plastic were manufactured worldwide each year. By 30 years from now, there will be not 250 million tons entering the ocean, like today, but 1800 million. It's exponential. Almost one-third of plastic produced is used to manufacture single-use “disposable” plastics such as coffee cup lids, stirrers, or straws. Each year we design and sell more disposable products using materials that float and last forever.


What is being “disposed of” with every straw, stirrer, bathtub duck, and Halloween costume are the whales. And with the whales go the ocean’s thermostat.

 

The IMF report concluded with a prescription and a warning:

Healthy whale populations imply healthy marine life including fish, seabirds, and an overall vibrant system that recycles nutrients between oceans and land, improving life in both places. The “earth-tech” strategy of supporting whales’ return to their previous abundance in the oceans would significantly benefit not only life in the oceans but also life on land, including our own.

With the consequences of climate change here and now, there is no time to lose in identifying and implementing new methods to prevent or reverse harm to the global ecosystem.  This is especially true when it comes to improving the protection of whales so that their populations can grow more quickly. Unless new steps are taken, we estimate it would take over 30 years just to double the number of current whales, and several generations to return them to their pre-whaling numbers. Society and our own survival can’t afford to wait this long.



We have to save the whales. There is no escaping that. But to save the whales, we must also save the turtles, and the gulls, and those little green plants that bob on the waves. To do all that, the first step is to do no more harm. We have to banish non-biodegradable plastics from our lives.





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