The Darwin Award and the Plight of the Ocean

The Darwin award recognizes individuals who contribute to human evolution by selecting themselves out of the gene pool. This award is given to individuals but the human-provoked climate disaster we are experiencing merits a modification of this definition to include a whole species. Our fondness for an energy-guzzling technological progress has blinded us to the huge collateral damage that threatens our survival, making our species the certain winners of this Award.

The damage we have done to our atmosphere and land amply merits the Darwin Award but these chances are further consolidated by our appalling treatment of the ocean. We have the luck of inhabiting the only blue-green planet in the solar system, a planet with water that sustains life, but we don’t seem to have appreciated it.

Most of us see the ocean as something beautiful, powerful, and mysterious, though quite apart from our daily lives on land. We also see it as an important recreation and food source, but unfortunately, our high-energy industrial culture does not recognize its importance for our survival and instead abuses it for profit. At the moment we seem to be more or less conscious of the damage we have caused to the atmosphere, but we rarely make the connection with the ocean and how both work in tandem in the regulation of Earth’s climate.

Climate regulation depends on the interactions of a myriad of variables in the atmosphere and ocean that determine the functioning of marine and air currents. Once those currents are disturbed, as they are now, the rain, wind, humidity, droughts, storm occurrence, and extreme temperatures will become increasingly unsettled.

One of those currents is the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation or AMOC, which acts as a conveyor belt that carries warm waters from the tropics into the North Atlantic. Once there, it returns to the tropics, where the cycle starts all over again.

Scientists agree that AMOC has been disturbed and though there is no consensus yet about all the possible negative effects, everyone agrees that its disturbance is affecting the climate worldwide. Especially worrying is its effect on the Arctic -the change in AMOC is allowing too much heat transfer to the Arctic, helping to reduce the ice cover. In turn, the Arctic sea-ice loss can further weaken AMOC, creating a dangerous feedback loop that also affects atmospheric currents like the jet stream, and further destroys the stability of our climate.

Another ocean current that can affect the whole world climate system is the El Niño-La Niña oscillation called ENSO. This is the most dramatic year-to-year variation of the Earth’s climate system and affects wind and temperatures around the world. The ENSO cycle is characterized by warm surface water in the Pacific Ocean during El Niño and cold during la Niña. These occur normally about every 10 years, but climate change is making them more frequent and extreme, impacting agriculture, water availability, power generation, and survival all over the world.

El Niño can cause dry spells by increasing temperatures and reducing rain in disparate parts of the world including Southern Africa, India, South East Asia, Australia, New Zealand, and the Pacific Northwest. While some areas are in extreme drought, others like Eastern Africa and central South America are drowned in rain.

La Niña has the opposite effect and combined, they can help to disorganize the climate even more. The proof of the complete disturbance of the ocean is given by the fact that the ocean is losing its memory! According to recent studies, the ocean’s ability to interact with the atmosphere to maintain stability in the Earth’s climate system has already been lost. It seems strange to talk about the ocean’s memory but this memory can be measured by sea surface temperature anomalies which can detect the extent of damage done to the normal circulation of the ocean. The ocean is in perpetual motion and this circulation is essential for the correct transportation of heat, carbon, plankton, nutrients, and oxygen around the world. The memory loss of the ocean means that our chances of recuperating stability and predictability in the climate that we knew are very low and diminishing each day.

One of the important functions of ocean circulation is the transport of oxygen, an essential element for marine life. Recent studies performed by oceanographer Sunke Schmidtko and his team at the Helmholtz Center for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany, show that oxygen levels have dropped by 2% between 1960 and 2010. More alarming is the fact that the volume of oceanic waters devoid of oxygen has quadrupled over the same period. The last time this occurred, about 94 million years ago, a marine extinction occurred. The culprits of this de-oxygenation are climate disruptions, excessive use of fertilizers, sewage, and higher ocean water temperatures.

While the ocean is losing oxygen, dissolved CO2 is rising. About half of the CO2 emissions humans have put in the atmosphere since the Industrial Revolution have been absorbed by the ocean, helping Earth to reduce its greenhouse warming. The increased CO2 in the ocean is turning it more acidic, about 10 times more than before the Industrial Revolution. This acidity generally affects marine life and greatly reduces the ability to build shells in coral and shellfish. According to Peter C. Hubbard, an electrophysiologist at the Center of Marine Sciences in Portugal, excess CO2 reduces olfactory sensitivity in sea bass and migratory fish like salmon. This could change behavior in ways that limit their survival.

The ocean has not only been forced to absorb CO2 but also excess heat, leading to a troubling rise of 2° Celsius since the Industrial Revolution. This temperature rise reduces the concentration of oxygen and the ocean’s ability to absorb CO2, preventing the mixing of upper and lower layers in the water column, slowing circulation, and affecting marine life worldwide.

The rising ocean temperatures also affect an essential part of the marine food pyramid, phytoplankton. According to a recent nine-year NASA satellite study, phytoplankton increases in cold ocean water, while it decreases when it gets warmer. In a warmer ocean, the home of most phytoplankton, the upper layer, tends to separate from the denser, colder water below, preventing the normal mixing of water and limiting the access of phytoplankton to nutrients in the deeper waters.

Phytoplankton is not only an important food staple for many marine animals -it is also responsible for about half of the photosynthesis on Earth. This process removes CO2 from the atmosphere and converts it into organic carbon and oxygen that feeds every ocean ecosystem. The sensitivity of phytoplankton to a rise in ocean temperatures sets off a domino effect of less krill and young fish that eventually leads to failed reproduction of seabirds and sea mammals, less oxygen, and less CO2 absorption.

The warmer ocean is also affecting much of marine life, producing mass die-offs, like the ones recently recorded in New Zealand. This country accounts for 85% of the king salmon supply in the world but this year they had to dump 42% of the fish into local landfills. In an effort to survive, wild fish and phytoplankton can move to the poles, but this is just a temporary solution on this warming planet.

The possible extinction of marine fauna and the loss of a sizable part of our food supply are already frightening, but the problem doesn’t stop there! Our energy and warring needs require the use of very toxic elements that produce harmful radiation. Nuclear waste demands very conscientious disposal that is very often hindered by our culture’s prioritization of revenues over safety. We seem to forget that this waste emits plutonium, the most harmful element in the periodic table that can emit radiation for 240,000 years!

This greedy neglect was practiced by about 13 countries that dumped nuclear waste into the ocean between 1946 and 1993, without following the proper disposal procedure. The US, France, Japan, Russia, the Netherlands, and others are guilty of this egregious behavior, appearing to follow the mantra: out of sight out of mind. As expected, the barrels were soon damaged, letting their harmful cargo out into the ocean, tainting marine life with radiation. Even though ocean nuclear dumping was banned in 1993, the radiation from the existing dumps is still harmful and some countries even continue adding to the pile, hoping that nobody notices.

This leads us to another harmful practice that has become quite acceptable -the fossil fuel exploration of the ocean. The Deepwater Horizon blowout in 2010 led to the largest offshore oil spill in history. British Petroleum (BP), the company responsible, is a good example of the lack of respect that our culture and governments have for the ocean. BP never considered the possibility of an accident, even though their practices at the rig weren’t based on much safety. In their foolish optimism, they deemed an environmental risk assessment a nuisance and applied for a “categorical exclusion” from the National Environmental Policy Act. BP is not the only culprit! The interior secretary at the time, Ken Salazar, accepted this gimmicky exclusion even though he knew that it usually applied to hiking trails and outhouses, not to oil rigs.

A few days before the accident, an engineer found that the well’s wall was ballooning and mud was seeping into it, but nobody paid attention to his pleas for action. After the accident, it took 4 months for BP to finally cap the well, allowing about 4.9 million barrels of crude oil to spread in the area.

The damage was compounded by the use of Corexit; an oil dispersant supposed to clean the area. Several studies have found that this product is even more toxic to marine life than the oil spill itself, but corporations like BP and many governments continue accepting this green-washing practice.

The collusion of BP and the government allowed the pollution of a huge area of the ocean and though BP was given several fines amounting to about 60 billion, the punishment didn’t fit the crime. BP soon asked for more offshore drilling permits and the US interior department approved them as though nothing had happened.

Our continuous need for newer technology and the energy to feed it has not only led us to dump nuclear waste and oil into the ocean but is now blindly leading us onto another catastrophic search: deep-sea mining for metals and minerals such as nickel, cobalt, manganese, copper and rare earth elements. Their latest plans include scouring the seabed to depths between 5,000 to 15,000 meters, hoping to get the elements needed for batteries, phones, and green energy. All mining implies pollution, but the mining of rare Earths, adds radioactivity to the usual toxic slag.

All this technology has also implied the production of huge quantities of plastic, most of which is ending up in the ocean, despite all the worldwide recycling efforts.

The account of all our assaults on the ocean is not pretty, yet there is not much outrage in the media about it. You would imagine that the beauty and force of the ocean would entice any intelligent species to preserve its integrity. Instead, we seem to prefer business as usual to the health of the ocean that sustains us. Our pollution and complete disturbance of the metabolic cycles and circulation of the ocean, coupled with the damage to the atmosphere, make our species certain first winners of the Darwin award.

We pride ourselves on being the most intelligent species on Earth, the winners of natural selection. We forget that natural selection only selects for adaptation at a certain time, not for overall improvement in the long term. We seem the most intelligent because we have designed the technology that allowed us to industrialize. We chose to ignore that this same efficiency in technology is now causing us trouble and we refuse to accept it. We are intelligent, but not enough to notice how our whole species is ruining its chances of survival, amply meriting the top Darwin award.

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