This week in Honolulu, at the International Union of the Conservation of Nature, my colleagues presented the most comprehensive and systemic ocean study ever undertaken on the consequences of oceans warming from burning subsidized fossil fuels.
Their conclusion is horrific.
Global warming is making the oceans sicker than ever before, spreading diseases among animals and humans and threatening global food security.
The oceans have absorbed 300 zeta joules of heat from burning fossil fuels. Since 1997, 150 of those 300 zeta joules have accumulated the equivalent energy of one Hiroshima-style atomic bomb detonating every second for 75 straight years.
As a result, global warming in the oceans is happening 1.5 to 5 times as fast as anything witnessed on land.
This study examined every major marine ecosystem encompassing life from microbes to whales and the deep oceans. Jellyfish, sea turtles, seabirds, fish stocks and phytoplankton — the basis of the entire marine web of food — are shifting toward the cooler respective poles by up to 100 degrees latitude. This is unprecedented.
The heat stored in the ocean has disrupted cold currents from rising and carrying iron and nitrogen essential to grow phytoplankton. Phytoplankton, along with the blue green bacteria prochlorococcus provides 7.4 billion people almost two out of every three breaths of oxygen. The oceans are missing 40 percent of the phytoplankton because they have absorbed so much heat from burning fossil fuels. That fossil fuel heat has changed the seasons in the ocean, which affects migration patterns.
It is not just the rising temperatures wreaking havoc with all marine life and coral reefs. Earlier this year, the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) researchers discovered that 53 percent of pteropods, or free swimming tiny sea snails, sampled off the U.S. West Coast had severely dissolved shells.
The oceans have increased in acidity faster than any time in the previous 300 million years from absorbing rising fossil fuel-released carbon dioxide. As the phytoplankton absorbs the rising levels of carbon dioxide, it releases carbonic acid. The snail shells, like all shellfish and coral reefs, are made of calcium carbonate, which melts in an acidic ocean.
As if melting shells were not shocking enough, the National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., released a stunning report earlier this year showing that beginning in 2030, large swathes of the Pacific Ocean — including around Hawaii and the U.S. mainland — will be void of oxygen due to the climate in crisis. That is a little more than 13 years from now.
This recent study found that hurricanes have risen by 30 percent per degree of ocean warming.
Cholera-bearing bacteria and toxic algal blooms cause nerve sickness and ciguatera — food poisoning from fish eating harmful warm-water algae. It is spreading more easily and widely in warm water. This directly affects human health.
Coral reefs are dying at an unprecedented rate. Habitat including essential nursery grounds is disappearing. Earth is losing species between 1,000 and 10,000 times faster than normal — a rate not experienced since the Fifth Great Extinction, 65 million years ago. At this current rate, as much as 50 percent of all known life, or 800,000 species, could be extinct by mid century, or 33 years from now.
Eighty scientists from 12 countries involved in this recent ocean study concluded: “There is no doubt in all our minds that we are the cause of this. We know what the solutions are. We need to get on with it.”
There’s only one way the human race can survive to mid century. We must save nature — our life support system — now.
In order to achieve this historic goal, we must source 80 percent of all energy from renewables, e.g. solar, wind, tidal power, by 2030 and 100 percent by 2050. That will entail a World War III-caliber effort: Mobilizing industry, employing millions of people and deploying that technology rapidly.
It is the race to save our planet!
Earth Doctor Reese Halter is the author of “Shepherding the Sea: The Race to Save our Oceans.”