Sick Seas: How Alanna Mitchell Changes Our View Of Our Planet
Water makes the world go round, to paraphrase an old song. We land-dwellers rarely think of our home as a water world, but scientists estimate that over 70 per cent of our surface is covered by water. As much as 97 per cent of that water is ocean. While we call it by different names, it is actually one continuous sheath of saline H2O, bathing every land mass on Earth.
Our oceans are the circulation system of our planet - in effect, the weather makers. Climate depends heavily on them. The ocean drives the movement of our air, in patterns that feed rain forests or heat deserts.
In fact, the ocean is directly responsible for our rainwater as well. Evaporation from our vast ocean is what continually supplies moisture to our air. Without that evaporation, every continent on our planet would become dry and barren.
Our oceans keep us warm too. The water on the planet absorbs massive amounts of heat from the sun and releases it - relatively slowly - to moderate the climate of many parts of our earth. For instance, western Europe is much warmer than it would be if only latitude controlled temperature.
Consider Holland. It is as far north as Winnipeg, Canada - nicknamed "Winterpeg" and well known for its snow and extreme cold. However, Holland is known for its early spring and tulips. They actually share a latitude. The only difference between these two places is that one is moderated by the Gulf Stream, while the other is land-locked in the middle of the North American continent.
Pollution, pH and Heat - oh, my
While the oceans run our planet, they are not immune to the effects of humans. In fact, humans are starting to profoundly change the workings of our ocean. Alanna Mitchell's book, Sea Sick: The Global Ocean In Crisis, looks at how pollution, increasing acidity and warming are changing the earth.
Mitchell, a Canadian journalist, interviewed scientists all over the globe to write her book. Their resounding statement was that the ocean is in trouble. One biologist told Mitchell that the world's ocean is like a huge switch, but instead of turning on a light, it turns on life. Humans have had their collective hands on that switch for a long time now. If life in the ocean dies because our fingers turn off the switch, life on land will go with it.
It turns out that our oceans do more than provide a nice view from a beach. Our oceans are the largest single producer of oxygen, courtesy of phytoplankton. Phytoplankton are the basis upon which the entire oceanic food chain rests. Those tiny organisms are also a fundamental source of carbon dioxide capture. When they die, they take carbon dioxide (which they "breathe" in order to perform photosynthesis) to the ocean floor, thus removing it from the environment.
So perhaps it's a good thing that phytoplankton are dying, since they are taking carbon dioxide with them, right? Well, that might be true except that humans are busy producing carbon dioxide emissions at historically unprecedented rates - and we show no signs that we realize what this means. It's not just that carbon dioxide goes into our atmosphere: CO2 also goes into our ocean with significant effects. In fact, our oceans are already significantly more acidic than they were just a few decades ago. While scientists are still puzzling out what more acidic oceans could mean, they do know that Increasing acidity reduces the availability of calcium carbonate from the water which many creatures depend on to build a shell or skeleton. Again, and most alarmingly, acidification could affect plankton, those bedrock creatures of the ocean food chain.
Plankton don't have just acidity to deal with. They are also dying because our oceans are too warm.
When the ocean is too warm, cold currents full of nutrients do not rise to the surface to provide vital minerals and nutrition to phytoplankton. In this case, phytoplankton die - but can't return. That means less oxygen, because our little friends are a fundamental producer of it.
Then there are the coastal oceanic dead zones. These zones are not dead because the water is too warm. These dead zones appear to be the direct result of too much of a good thing: in this case, phosphorus from human farming that runs into the ocean with our rivers. One of the North American continent's biggest dead zones is in the Gulf of Mexico, just off shore of some of the world's most productive farmland.
Add to this the problems of pollution of all kinds - including sea-faring plastic - and our ocean is suffering an onslaught of unprecedented proportions. It turns out that human activity is changing almost everything about our salt water home: temperature, salinity, acidity, ice cover, volume, circulation, and even which creatures still survive in them.
Humans have to get their hands off the switch.
It's easy to fall into despair. Even Mitchell did while she was in the process of writing her book. But she found hope. It will take hope to find the energy for action, so that we step back from our world-wide abuse of the ocean and reclaim our home and heritage.
But the question remains: what can we do?
- Choose organically grown, local food. This isn't as hard as it sounds. There are a lot of farmers out there who are changing from producing food with chemicals to doing it the "old fashioned" way. Not all are certified organic - but a trip to your local farmer's market and an effort to get to know the people who grow your food will reveal healthy, local choices that will likely cost less than you think.
- From "me" to "we". Our communities will again be the backbone of our world. Taking care of each other will mean that we need less - and we'll be able to share more. One neighbor may fix bicycles as a hobby while another makes clothes. This is an ideal place to trade skills and help everyone do better. We could all take a cue from the Amish, who are known for their strong community ties that brings everyone to bear when one family needs something.
- From quantity to quality. My grandmother was born in 1899. She owned a small wardrobe of clothes. She had 2 good dresses. It wasn't about how full her closet was. In fact, she was more interested in giving things to her grandchildren than she was in having more for herself. Don't get me wrong - my grandmother was a woman of style for her generation. But for many things, one quality purchase was enough.
- From buy to make. How many of us have completely forgotten the intrinsic satisfaction of making something for ourselves? I grew up with the smell of my mother's homemade bread in our house - and it beat what you can get at the store any time! What about the value of the homemade gift? When I was 9 years old, my grandmother made me a blouse. She thought about me in picking the material and the style. I wore that blouse until I couldn't squeeze another atom of wear out of it. Part of the reason was that my grandmother had made it.
- From drive to walk or ride. It's pretty straightforward: CO2 production is killing us, even if we don't know it. Drive less; take transit; buy a bike. This could be one of the most critical steps we need to take. It means learning to live life a bit slower - and that's not a bad thing.
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