Nature Collapsing On Land and Under the Sea

Burning Fossil Fuels

Earlier this week, Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, called global warming ”bullsh*t” and a “hoax” that was “created for and by the Chinese in order to make US manufacturing noncompetitive.” 

Nature — our life support system — is collapsing on land and under the sea at a horrifying rate as Earth races towards the first red flag of 1.50C, above preindustrial times, that 195 countries agreed upon last December in Paris. 

My colleagues from Scripps Institute have shown that burning fossil fuels since the mid-1980s has robbed approximately 600 oxygen molecules per million oxygen molecules from the atmosphere. While that is not enough to disrupt human daytime activity, it is enough to begin impinging upon sleep patterns. One in every four Americans suffers from sleep disorders. 

The oceans, according to my colleagues at Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory, 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. 

The heat stored in the ocean has disrupted cold currents from rising and carrying iron and nitrogen essential to grow phytoplankton, the basis of the entire marine food web. It, along with 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. 

Earlier this year, my colleagues met in Hobart, Australia, where researchers from NOAA presented shocking results that 53 percent of pteropods, or free-swimming tiny sea snails, sampled off the US West Coast had severely dissolved shells. 

The oceans have increased in acidity faster than 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.

A couple months ago, my colleagues at The National Center for Atmospheric Research in Boulder, Colo., released a stunning report showing that beginning in 2030, large swathes of the Pacific Ocean — including around Hawaii and the US mainland — will be void of oxygen due to the climate in crisis. That’s only 14 years from now! 

Over the past 15 years, western North America has warmed way up and indigenous bark beetles, which usually die in frigid November temperatures did not. The beetles have feasted on pines and spruce. As astounding 30 billion mature trees are dead along a vast 2,500-mile-long north-south region spanning both Canada and America. Instead of capturing rising carbon dioxide from burning fossil fuels and storing that heat-trapping gas in wood, those dead trees are decomposing and releasing more climate-altering greenhouse gases into an over-heated atmosphere. Moreover, millions of acres of beetle-killed forests across the west are not attracting or holding snow like the living forests did, or releasing the spring melt waters slowly into the ecosystem, recharging streams, rivers and aquifers for 55 million people including California — the sixth-largest economy on the globe.

As if these examples of nature collapsing were not enough to frighten the lawmakers into reducing society’s dependence upon fossil fuels, the most recent events most certainly are.

In late May, my colleagues from James Cook University in Australia revealed the enormous extent of the death of the Great Barrier Reef. Fifty percent of the areas sampled along the northern 600 miles, which has escaped the 1998 and 2002 coral bleaching events, were dead. It is an unprecedented die-off. Coral reefs are home to at least one million forms of sea life, including sharks, whales, dolphins, porpoises, sea turtles and so many other forms of marine life that depend upon this crucial habitat and nursery grounds. When corals die, the sea life dies.

Two weeks ago, along a 1,200-mile stretch of Western Australia’s Indian Ocean, my colleagues reported that the kelp forests collapsed from a 2011 marine heat wave 2.50C above the long-term maximum average — there’s no sign of recovery whatsoever. Kelp forests are essential habitat for hundreds of unique species. When kelp forests die, so too do all their inhabitants.

This week, 22,000 acres of mangrove forests in Queensland and the Northern Territory along the Gulf of Carpentaria collapsed from a prolonged drought — unprecedented mortality. Mangroves guard the shoreline, holding soil to the land and proving vital habitat for commercial prawn, crabs and finfish like barramundi. Those populations are crashing. The next time a cyclone rips into northeastern Australia, thousands of tons of shoreline soils will be washed into the sea. 

How dare Trump pretend that nothing is going on, while nature is collapsing, and dangle a US manufacturing conspiracy as the culprit? America needs a leader who will protect the people — not treat them as though they are the audience on a realty show. If nature dies, we die.

Earth Doctor Reese Halter is the author of “The Insatiable Bark Beetle.”