“Ocean Soul”…Listening to Brian Skerry at National Geographic Live

By Neva Knott

I’ve always lived near water. The home I was born into sat on the shore of a lake in a town surrounded by the Puget Sound. As my world expanded, I learned rivers and the ocean’s shore. When I was six, my father moved my family to Saipan, a small island in the South Pacific. Small, as in 14 miles long and five miles wide. It was there I fell in love with the ocean. I learned to swim and snorkel there, was stung by many man-o-war jelly fish. My father was an ecologist, so it wasn’t enough to witness the fish in the coral habitat; I learned their ways.

The ever-morphing boundary of earth and sea, that line that changes each day, minutely, as the water crashes on the sand and ebbs outward is fascinating. Power and grace.

As an adult, I lived on Maui for a year, another Pacific island, larger, but still small enough that I saw the ocean from every vantage point. I’d often look out across the water and marvel that it was the same body of water that touched my home shores in Washington and Oregon. The Pacific, it seems, connects all the places of my life.

The pervasive connectedness of the oceans underpinned the tone of photographer Brian Skerry‘s recent talk, “Ocean Soul,” given here in Olympia as part of the National Geographic Live series. Skerry has spent over 10,000 hours under water, photographing wildlife and habitat there. His images are saturated in the colors of the sea–deep blues and greens, brilliant oranges and yellows, shadows and darkness in the depths. Much of his work illustrates and promotes the vast beauty of the world beyond that magic shoreline. Skerry has photographed is unique and remote locations. In his book, Ocean Soul, he tells the stories of Leatherback Turtles on Matura Beach in Trinidad; Right Whales in Canada’s Bay of Fundy; Harp Seals in the Arctic Gulf of Saint Lawrence. In his journey to find these stories, Skerry explained in his talk, he began to notice environmental problems under water.

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Photograph courtesy of The Smithsonian.

The images for his talk in the speaker series included photographs of seal hunting, the over-fishing of blue fin tuna, the by-catch of trawling for shrimp, and the dangers to sharks of entanglement in disposed fishing nets. He also gave the example of critical mangrove habitat in the everglades being destroyed to make a golf course. Skerry explained that his intent is to use his [beautiful] photography to raise awareness of the interconnectedness of the ocean’s ecosystems and the interdependency between species in these habitats. During his talk he admonished that we can no longer look at species and habitats a separate. The aim of his photography of environmental problems is to make this point.

As I listened to Skerry, his beautiful images on the large screen in front of me–and yes, even the images of the problems are beautiful–I once again saw that the environmental problems stem from human over-consumption…or just plain wrong thinking, like the idea of filling in a mangrove estuary to make a golf course.

Skerry’s images and talk took the audience’s attention well beyond the charismatic species approach of garnering awareness. He is a man who knows the world’s oceans intimately. He promotes the beauty and the need for consideration of these huge bodies of water that connect our worlds.

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Hope for Mitigation of Ocean Acidification

By Neva Knott

I teach at a small college in Washington, Centralia College. Even though we only have 2,600 students, the college has a strong STEM focus. As an extension of the Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math programs, the college hosts speakers for the Rising Tide Seminar Series. The speaker for the January 2015 seminar was Dr. Christopher Sabine, Oceanographer and the Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory of NOAA. He opened his presentation at Centralia College with the message that climate change is undeniable and serious, but it’s not too late.

Dr. Sabine gave the following five take-home points:

1. The profound impact of humans on the earth’s climate is “unmistakable at this point”

2. Carbon dioxide released into the climate has fundamentally changed the chemistry of oceans

3. The current amount of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere will impact climate for thousands, if not 10’s of thousands, of years

4. Even though the rate of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has been higher in the past, the rate of increase is 10-100 times faster than ever before in the geological past; this rapid rate of increase has a real, negative impact on adaptation–the ability of species, including humans, to change enough to exist in the changed biotic system

5. That there is a way out

Dr. Sabine’s presentation was largely based on the International Panel of Climate Change Fifth Assessment Report (2013), on which he consulted. The latest findings are that the evidence substantiates a better than 95 percent likelihood of human influence as the driver of climate change. In referencing the work of IPCC, Sabine explained that there are “multiple lines of evidence” to support the unequivocal warming of the earth’s climate system, evidence that he suggested climate deniers can no longer avoid. These lines of evidence are: increasing air temperature; increasing atmospheric water vapor; increasing temperature over oceans; increasing sea temperature; increasing sea level; increasing ocean heat; decreasing sea ice.

The statistics behind these factors are staggering and somewhat unfathomable. Dr. Sabine explained that, as the climate has warmed in the last 40 years, 275 zeda jewels of additional solar energy have accumulated in the earth’s system. To illustrate–one zeda jewel is enough energy for the needs of the entire human population for two years. About seven percent of this accumulated energy is stored terrestrially, on land, in plants and soils. The rest is going into the oceans.

Carbon emissions into the atmosphere are measured in parts per million (ppm). Pre-industrial revolution the atmosphere measured 228 ppm of carbon dioxide, whereas today the measurement is 400 ppm or more.

Dr. Sabine illustrated the increase in atmospheric carbon dioxide with another measurement, the petagram. The current rate of release is right around 10 petagrams per year. The image Sabine offered in order for the audience to wrap our minds around this huge number was this: a 156,500 mile-long hopper car of coal would release one petagram. Thus, the current 10 petagrams would equal that hopper car of coal circling 70 times around the earth at the equator. To further illustrate, Sabine explained that the annual rate of 28,000 square miles of deforestation equals one petagram of carbon dioxide emission.

The culminating effect of the increase in carbon dioxide in the oceans is that the oceanic carbon cycle has been reversed. Pre-industrial revolution and climate change, oceans were a carbon source. Through their natural processes, they released carbon into the atmosphere that was, in turn, taken up by leaves, which then degraded into the soil system, where the carbon was stored. Now, oceans are a carbon sink. This increase is the cause of ocean acidification–because carbon dioxide is an acid gas. Dr. Sabine stated that pH balance is “very important for ocean ecosystems.”

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Corals of The Great Barrier Reef. Courtesy of wiki commons.

Acidification makes it difficult for organisms to form shells, using reefs to weaken and bleach. In the arctic, shells are dissolving off snails. The Great Barrier Reef has lost 50 percent of its coral over the last three decades. Not only is ocean acidification problematic to marine species, one billion people globally rely on the oceans as a food source, some for 100 percent of their dietary protein.

NOAA has several programs to help coastal communities mitigate the effects of climate change. One of the organization’s goals is to create a “climate literate” public. In addition to these public support programs, NOAA offers a Climate Stewards Education Project. NOAA’s efforts are also linked with President Obama’s Climate Action Plan. The solution to ocean acidification is at once simple and enormous–humans must decrease carbon emissions. The time is now.

Saving Coral Reefs

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Coral Reef in Timor. Photograph courtesy of Nick Hobgood.

By Frances Hall

Coral reefs provide a number of services to humans beyond colorful aquarium accessories: they protect coastlines from storms, provide an enormous variety of unique medicinal compounds, and support the economy of many developing countries through tourism. Furthermore, the fish that the coral reefs support are a source of vital income and calories: one study estimated that a quarter of the food of 1 billion Asians is reef-supported fish. It will come as no great shock that human activities imperil these reefs in a number of ways,

Carbon dioxide, the primary greenhouse gas, does more than trap heat in the atmosphere. About one quarter of all Carbon dioxide emissions are dissolved into the ocean, where they trigger a reaction that ultimately reduces the available carbonate in ocean water. While this may not sound dire out of context, calcium carbonate forms the skeletons of reef-building coral as well as shelled marine animals, such as urchins and oysters. (Coral refers to the living organism and reef refers to the rocky structure they live on, primarily formed by the skeletons of coral). The lack of it leaves these animals unable to excrete a shell, making them unlikely to survive, and can cause the structure supporting a coral reef, comprised of coral skeletons, to collapse.

Bleached Moofushi Coral

Bleached Musifi Coral. Photograph courtesy of Bruno de Guisti.

Corals also respond poorly to rising sea level temperatures. Many corals have living within them: the corals provide shelter, and the dinoflagellates convert sunlight into as much as 95 per cent of the energy its host requires. Often, in a misinformed stress response to heat, corals expel their dinoflagellates, the equivalent of kicking out all your renters the same day you lose your job. This leads to the often-pictured “coral bleaching” because corals without their boarders are pale and usually dying. If this heat stress is mild, corals can often regain their dinoflagellates before irreparable harm is done. Regrettably, climate change is rapidly reaching a point where “mild” will no longer describe the resulting temperature changes.

These findings beg the question: are coral reefs even capable of recovering from such damage? Natural weather events give scientists an excellent opportunity to study this. El Niño happens every two to seven years and is characterized by warmer waters in certain areas, with far reaching effects on both land and sea. In both 1982 and 1997 there were unusually severe El Niño cycles, characterized by temperature fluctuations greater than two degrees Celsius, that lasted for months. This forces corals to exist temporarily under conditions that climate change may one day make permanent. A 2004 study looked at sections of a coral reef in the Cocos Island that had been severely impacted by the 1982 El Niño to the point that certain sections only had three per cent live coral cover. The heat stress of the El Niño had bleached and ultimately killed most of the live coral on the reef.

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Coral at Palmyra Atoll. Photograph courtesy of Jim Maragos of the US Fish and Wildlife Service.

In 2004 scientists calculated live coral cover on these same reefs. Some reefs collapsed and one showed no measurable recovery at all. However, others exhibited and average live coral cover of 18 to 21 per cent, an enormous gain in only twenty years. One coral reef had increased to 50 per cent live cover. Furthermore, in some reefs coral diversity, arguably a good measure of reef health, had increased with the appearance of three coral species that hadn’t previously been seen off the Cocos Island. These findings led the scientists to conclude that reefs “have the capacity to recover from severe disturbances” and even increase diversity in the face of them.

Florida Coral Reef

Florida Coral Reef. Photograph courtesy of Jerry Reid of the Fish and Wildlife Service.

To accept the conclusions of one study as absolute truth is to live in a desert and assume you’ve seen every kind of plant. Still, even if these findings only apply to the Cocos Islands, or certain kinds of coral, they are cause for celebration. Previous studies estimated that coral reefs would need lifetimes or even centuries to recover. It’s not too late, and as long as there are even patches of healthy corals it probably won’t be. We can still fix this, so of course it’s worth it to try.

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Frances

Francis has just joined the team at The Ecotone Exchange. She currently works as an outdoor educator at the Pali Institute in Running Springs, California. She graduated earlier this year from Earlham College with a B.A. in biology. In her spare time she hikes, runs, sings, cooks, and reads many, many books.