BAD ACID–AND WORSE

6 04 2006

Recently, the University of Washington’s oceanographic research vessel, the Thomas G. Thompson, completed one piece of what the University calls “The Repeat Hydrography Project.” The good ship Thomas G. Thompson sailed from the Antarctic to Alaska up the middle of the Pacific Ocean, taking about three months to complete the voyage. As they sailed, the thirty-five scientists aboard took samples of ocean water, from the surface to the bottom, every sixty miles. The “Repeat Hydrography Project” involves sampling along 19 such routes every ten years, to create a comprehensive picture of the ocean’s health.

What the scientists have found so far is this: the Pacific Ocean has absorbed enough carbon dioxide to begin lowering its pH and decreasing the amount of oxygen in the water. The oceans have a tremendous capacity to absorb CO2. They have absorbed about half the carbon dioxide that has been released into the atmosphere since the beginning of the industrial revolution. But there are consequences. Less oxygen in the water makes it harder for fish to survive, and a sinking pH will dissolve crustaceans’ shells.

Big deal, soft-shell crab, right? Wrong. The ocean’s predominant crustacean species is microscopic phytoplankton, the foundation of the ocean food chain. Dissolving their shells will kill them. It’s not enough that we’ve depleted an estimated 90% of the edible fish in the ocean, we’re now destroying the very basis for their survival—and our own, because phytoplankton are the major source of photsynthesis on this planet, which means that they are the major source of the oxygen we breathe. So, if we take out the plankton, eventually we will suffocate ourselves. Isn’t that lovely?

In other environmental news this last month, climatologists announced the connection between the meltdown of the Greenland ice sheet and the shrinking of ocean ice in Antarctica. As I reported last month, Greenland’s meltdown is accelerating. There have been reports of “icequakes” due to the fact that the icecap is melting from the bottom, so that while the top looks the same, it is being undermined and ultimately settles several feet. One scientist said that the thaw of Greenland is about a hundred years ahead of the schedule it was thought to be on just a few years ago.

So—when Greenland melts down, that will raise the ocean level about ten feet, and that ten-foot floodtide will sweep down to Antarctica (which is warming up already) and contribute to the erosion of the Antarctic ice sheet, giving us yet another ten feet of water in the ocean, for a total twenty-foot rise, probably in the next hundred years. Bye-bye Florida, bye-bye New Orleans (for good, this time), bye-bye Houston and New York and Boston and the outer banks of North Carolina and much of the Central Valley of California where most of our vegetables come from and—omigawsh, bye-bye London and Holland and Bangladesh and lots of southeast Asia and a whole lot of the South Pacific. Bye-bye fresh water supplies in many places adjacent to the ocean, like Los Angeles.

When you couple the human displacement that this will cause with the cultural and political disruption that will come when the Himalayan ice sheet melts down (that’s the next biggest ice sheet on the planet after Greenland and Antarctica, and it’s shrinking fast, too) and all the rivers of Asia, from the Indus to the Irriwaddy to the Mekong and the Huang Ho, stop flowing, we’re in for a bang-up century.

The ironic thing is, that this didn’t have to happen, and it could be mitigated, if the United States took the lead in casting out greed and selfishness as the foundations of national policy. Our American way of life, and all the resources we employ to defend it, have caused this problem and are keeping it from being solved. It’s time to take the initiative, simplify our lives, get our government to drop its guns, and get to work.

music: Leonard Cohen, “The Road to Hell”

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