Monitoring The World's Oceans

By The Intersection | March 3, 2010 2:56 pm

This is the seventh in a series of guest posts by Joel Barkan, a previous contributor to “The Intersection” and a graduate student at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. The renowned Scripps marine biologist Jeremy Jackson is teaching his famed “Marine Science, Economics, and Policy” course for what may be the last time this year (along with Jennifer Jacquet), and Joel will be reporting each week on the contents of the course.

I don’t want to write a post all about climate change on Chris and Sheril’s blog because my fire-retardant suit is at the cleaners. So I won’t. But I will write about what marine scientists can learn from what climate scientists are doing (no “Oceangate” jokes, please).

Each week, I write in this space about a different threat that will inevitably doom our oceans if we fail to act. But which threat is the most critical? At least climate scientists have agreed on a general consensus: most of the observed warming over the last 50 years is likely due to increased greenhouse gas concentrations as a result of human activities. UC San Diego’s own Naomi Oreskes, in a 2004 Science essay, analyzed nearly a thousand abstracts published in the ISI database between 1993 and 2003 that contained the keywords “climate change.” Three-quarters of them accepted the consensus view and not a single one challenged it. This means climate scientists know the problem (greenhouse gas emissions) and how to address it (reduce emissions). Of course, it’s not that simple, but it’s a basic cause and effect that advocates can rally behind.

It’s not quite so straightforward for marine scientists. Ask one why the oceans are in danger and he’ll say it’s because of overfishing. Ask another and she’ll say it’s because of pollution. Ask a third and the reason will be coastal development. We know we have problems, but we struggle to agree on the most pressing. Marine scientists also don’t have something like the Keeling Curve to present as a simple, obvious symbol of human impacts on the oceans. Most importantly, the world lacks something like the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) to assess ocean health and inform policy decisions. As a result, the marine conservation movement often feels as unorganized and unfocused as a third grade recess.

Dr. Jackson and Dr. Jacquet have challenged us to brainstorm creative solutions for marine management. The student presenters in this week’s class offered some thought-provoking ideas. They cooked up the “Intergovernmental Panel on the Degradation of the Marine Environment,” though Dr. Jacquet suggested substituting “Ocean” for “Marine Environment” to create the snazzy acronym IPDO. Like IPCC does for climate change, IPDO would evaluate the state of the marine environment as a basis for informed policy action. IPDO would also consolidate marine management into a single group, as opposed to the current bewildering myriad of agencies with jurisdiction. The students gave IPDO the hypothetical power to sanction or fine countries for violating certain standards of marine ecosystem health. IPDO would also maintain a points system to evaluate countries based on their protection (or abuse) of the oceans. Every five years or so, IPDO would publish a report on the state of our oceans, much like the IPCC’s Synthesis Report, and reveal which nations were champions of ocean conservation and which were the culprits for ocean degradation. Could the public, international shame of such a ranking motivate the offending countries to change their ways?

At one point, it was suggested that the IPDO could even collaborate with the International Olympic Committee to ban countries from the Games for particularly brazen acts of ocean destruction. Can you imagine if China had been barred from the Vancouver Games for its taste for shark fin soup, or Iceland for its high seas bottom trawling? It’s a crazy idea, but it’s going to take a lot of crazy ideas to thwart the barrage of threats to our oceans.

Comments (8)

  1. Mark Christal

    Change the proposed panel to “International Panel on Oceanic Degradation” to get an acronym of IPOD. Might sell better, it works for Apple.

  2. Guy

    The chief problem is that protecting oceans requires some form of global governance but there isn’t a strong global organization to do it. You could try to put together a UN Resolution that member nations agree too but that would difficult to enforce.

  3. Dark Tent

    Joel Barkan says

    “Marine scientists also don’t have something like the Keeling Curve to present as a simple, obvious symbol of human impacts on the oceans.”

    But isn’t the Keeling curve already a “simple, obvious symbol of human impacts on the oceans.”?

    In fact, isn’t the Keeling curve actually a better, more direct indication of what is happening to ocean acidity than it is of what is happening to global surface temperature?

    — eg, as illustrated on the graphs shown here found at the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission site

    and as also shown in the

    graphs here from the NOAA Coral Reef Watch site.

    While one can argue (seemingly endlessly) about alternative (to CO2 increase) contributions to global temperature change, it’s really hard to argue that the human related (fossil fuel burning and cement production) CO2 emissions which are responsible for the increase in atmospheric CO2 concentration (shown on the Keeling curve) are not also directly responsible for the VERY rapid (geologically speaking) changes in pH that the oceans have experienced in recent times.

    If the past is any indication, it is also hard to argue that this pH change will not have a large impact on ocean life.

    For whatever reason, global mean temperature has become the poster child for human impacts on the environment.

    The increase in ocean acidity is the elephant in the room that only ocean scientists seem to have noticed and may turn out to be every bit as (if not more) important to humans than temperature changes.

  4. Ron

    I love how you ignore the Democratic war on science. Latest news is that food bourne illnesses cost the economy $152B per year. Yet dems have fought against irradiation of food. I guess it’s OK when it’s dems behind the bad science of 5000 deaths per year. No, I’m not a Republican. I actually agree with you about the republican war on science, but the dems have conducted their own war. Thirty-five years w/o a new nuke plant and now it’s suddenly chic. I don’t expect a response from a partisan hack. Once again I hate repubs just as much. You have to insane to think that only one party has all the answers.

  5. Ask one why the oceans are in danger and he’ll say it’s because of overfishing. Ask another and she’ll say it’s because of pollution. Ask a third and the reason will be coastal development. We know we have problems, but we struggle to agree on the most pressing.

    Umm … the logical answer is “all of them.” It’s not a beauty contest.

  6. Joel,

    The research book, “Atlantic Salmon in Maine,” by the National Research Council, National Academies Press, 2004, offers an excellent template on how to analyze cumulative effects over enormous geographic areas (from Maine to East Greenland) and from mountain headwaters to estuaries to the North Atlantic and southern Arctic. Trying to ask “what is the most pressing problem” is a fool’s errand since it is different for every species and every aquatic biome, as it has to be. Pick a species, any species, and save it. In doing so you will save the ones nearby. Then keep moving outward. Time is running out.

  7. Two thing.

    1. You do realize that Naomi Oreskes was full of shit, don’t you?

    2. On Ocean acidification: According to Wikipedia the PH of the ocean in the 1700’s was 8.179. How they know this or can even estimate it to three fucking significant digits is beyond me, especial y when one considers that the concept of PH was only developed around 100 years ago. At any rate, they now say that the PH of the ocean is 8.104. So, in 300 years the PH of all the world’s oceans, on average, has dropped by .075 basis points and that this drop is responsible for the destruction of the oceans corals. I realize PH is a logarithmic function ….. but come on people! 75 thousandths of a basis point?

  8. Dark Tent

    Mike H says

    “According to Wikipedia the PH of the ocean in the 1700’s was 8.179. How they know this or can even estimate it to three fucking significant digits is beyond me…”

    So, you found something on wikipedia that gives the pH in 1700 to 3 decimal places, eh?

    …and that means precisely what?

    That wikipedia is not always completely right? Oh my, what a discovery! (Noble prize material, no doubt)

    But, in all seriousness, according to ocean scientists, the pH of the oceans has dropped by about 0.1 from pre-industrial levels.

    And though you acknowledge that “PH is a logarithmic function’, it does not appear that you fully appreciate what that means.

    A drop in pH of “only” 0.1 means about a 25% increase in hydrogen-ion concentration (ie, more acidic) A drop of “just” 0.3 in pH would mean a doubling of hydrogen-ion concentration.

    It has been estimated by some marine scientists that the pH may drop by that mount (below pre-industrial level) before the end of the current century (depending upon the emissions rate).

    And while that may not seem like much to you, to marine organisms like coral and plankton that use a pH sensitive chemical process to build their calcium carbonate skeletons, such a change can be very significant (ie, harm or even kill them).

    Shellfish (oysters, clams, muscles, etc) depend on a similar chemical process — and as everyone knows, humans (and other animals) use shell-fish as a food source

    In other words, despite your completely uninformed assumption to the contrary, small changes in pH can have a significant effect on ocean life.

    ..and on other life as well.

    The human body attempts to maintain the pH of the blood between about 7.35 and 7.45.

    Guess what happens when that is changed (by some external source) by just 0.3 either way? ( more acidic or more basic)

    You die within just a few hours, that’s what.

    PS the above information on ocean pH is not hard to find (for anyone who cares to look that is)

    See for example this press release from University of Hawii

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