During a recent presentation about Hokule'a's worldwide voyage, Polynesian Voyaging Society president Nainoa Thompson remarked that if you want to save the Earth, save the ocean. "Out of four breaths you take," he said, "three come from the ocean."
As someone who loves the ocean, this resonated with me. It is the reason I work as an advocate for clean energy: Our fossil fuel use is killing the ocean.
These days, technology has us so plugged in that we rely on power more than ever. If we create the demand, then we also bear the responsibility for its impacts--including the carbon emissions that come from the oil, coal, and natural gas we burn to fuel our lifestyles. The ocean absorbs about one-third of those emissions, and the sea's chemistry has changed because of it. This occurrence is known as ocean acidification, and it is happening at a rate faster than history has seen in 65 million years.
The most direct threat is to corals and invertebrates whose calcium carbonate shells and skeletons begin to dissolve or are unable to form in a more acidic sea. Without healthy coral reefs, other marine ecosystems face serious disruption. Recent scientific studies are even more foreboding:
- Findings from an analysis of 167 studies that looked at the effects of acidification on more than 150 species of marine life, including corals, crustaceans, mollusks, fishes, and echinoderms was published on Aug. 25 in Nature Climate Change. At the carbon concentration levels predicted by 2100, corals, echinoderms, mollusks and fish all suffered negative impacts. At 2050 levels, damage to internal tissues, particularly the central nervous system could occur, causing some fish to become "hyperactive or confused, causing them to be less fearful of predators."
- Tobias Friedrich and Axel Timmermann at UH-Manoa's International Pacific Research Center predict that by the end of the century, the amount of ocean area where coral reefs can thrive will be less than five percent in the Hawaiian Islands.
- Another study published in Nature Climate Change on Aug. 25 reports that acidification would inhibit marine phytoplankton from emitting sulphur compounds that help to form clouds and keep the planet cool. This could accelerate global warming an additional 0.9°F this century.
Blue Planet Foundation's founder Henk Rogers, who resolved to end the use of carbon-based fuels when he learned the coral was disappearing, offered this straightforward explanation in his commencement address at University of Hawai'i-Manoa in December 2011: "Acidification is caused by oceanic carbon dioxide absorption. That would be carbon dioxide made by combustion of what once was organic matter. Humans--that would be us--send 200 years of sequestered carbon--forests turned into coal and sea-life turned into oil--into the atmosphere--that would be the stuff we breathe--every single year. There is something really wrong with this."
In Hawai'i, our daily fossil fuel diet emits the equivalent of 5.6 billion balloonfuls of CO2 each day. There is something "really wrong" with ignoring this. It's kind of like being diagnosed with cancer--just because you don't see it, it's a bad idea to pretend it's not happening.
Besides acidification, our fossil fuel consumption harms the ocean in other ways, too:
- CO2 emissions contribute to global warming, which has raised the temperature of the ocean. This can stress corals and cause them to expel the colorful algae that nourish them, a phenomenon known as coral bleaching. In a massive global bleaching event in 1998, 16 percent of the world's coral died.
- As temperatures rise, water expands and more ice melts. As sea level rises, we see a host of damaging issues, from storm drains flooding with saltwater in heavy rains to beaches eroding at a faster rate.
- Oil spills: The 2010 BP Deepwater Horizon explosion dumped 4.9 million barrels of oil into the Gulf of Mexico (19 times more than the 1989 Exxon Valdez spill into the Prince William Sound), contaminating 665 miles of coastline.
- A joint study from the U.S. Geological Survey and the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service released Aug. 28 found that a 2007 fracking fluid spill in Kentucky likely caused the widespread death of several types of fish.
At Blue Planet, we just went through the mentally agonizing--but valuable--exercise of redrafting our vision statement to describe why we do what we do. Because, really, that's what matters. Nobody's conserving energy to count how many kilowatt hours they saved (well, except for Hawaii Energy, but that's their job) or erecting windmills to decorate the landscape. But this big-picture reminder of why is often overlooked in the public dialogue. Improving our economy and energy security are valid reasons to choose clean energy--and both are certain outcomes of an energy system free of fossil fuels. For Blue Planet, it's this: We envision a world of abundant, renewable energy that sustains all life on Earth.
Which brings me back to saving the ocean. Living on isolated islands surrounded by the sea, we truly appreciate its value. The ocean inspires confidence, freedom, beauty, and miracles. It is our refrigerator. It is our playground. It is our doctor. It is our classroom. It is our frontier. We take so much from the sea. Shouldn't we be giving something back?