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Sick Seas: How Alanna Mitchell Changes Our View Of Our Planet

Updated on June 9, 2010

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.

Now What?

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?

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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.

Want more ideas? Consider checking out The Green Life and get a new green living tip every day.


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    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 8 years ago from Camden, South Carolina

      Poetry--yep, that makes sense!

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 8 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      Don't know an address but I do know that she lives in Toronto. Her website is: Her site does have a "contact" link.

    • profile image

      Lasensua 8 years ago

      Would like to get ahold of Allana..I am an arts educator & very interested in her work...I am visiting Canada & would like to meet w/ her. anyone have a #? or email adresss?

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 8 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      Thank you so much for your kind words, Doc Snow! I've been making my living as a writer for a number of years - I'm hoping I get better at those finely crafted sentences as I go along... ;-)

      It may or may not surprise you to find out that I write poetry too... The sound of a sentence or phrase is so important in poetry; it may convey as much meaning as the words themselves, in my experience.

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 8 years ago from Camden, South Carolina

      Re-reading this hub, I was reminded of Alice Munro's comment to a would-be writer who asked her if he should pursue a career as a writer. She responded, "I don't know--do you like sentences?"

      I like your sentences, Monique!

      A favorite in this hub:

      ". . . it is actually one continuous sheath of saline H2O, bathing every land mass on Earth."

      Luscious! (Say it aloud and see.)

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 8 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      Thanks for the comment, LRobbins! I suspect that Canadians are quietly doing a lot of good work that may sometimes go unnoticed; it's nice to get a chance to showcase some great environmental work.

    • LRobbins profile image

      Laurel 8 years ago from Germany

      Great info and nice to see that you highlighted the work of another fellow Canadian!

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 8 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      prasetio30 - the situation is very serious. It is also possible for humans to come to the ocean's rescue, and save ourselves at the same time... I'm on the side of positive action!

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 8 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Great information. thanks for share. It open my eyes about safely our world.

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 8 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      I agree completely, pgrundy! My kids love walking to do errands and actually ASK to do it! There is more to life than burning fossil fuels like mad fools... LOL

    • profile image

      pgrundy 8 years ago

      We have slowly been shifting to all these habits you list here. What is amazing is that it's not really a sacrifice--it actually creates a better and healthier quality of life. The tough part is to get the word out and get people to make the changes so they can see that for themselves. Great hub!

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 9 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      glassvisage - it's such a big topic! I agree that these two hubs support each other... Let's spread the news!

    • glassvisage profile image

      glassvisage 9 years ago from Northern California

      Thanks for commenting on my Global Warming Hub! I think that these two go well with each other. The facts that you include here complement mine, I'd say :) There are so many things everyday people can do to help!

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 9 years ago from Camden, South Carolina

      Will do--and reciprocally, you may be interested in my science history pieces on "classic" global warming science. Few realize that the research goes back to the age of Napoleon!

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 9 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      DocSnow - nice to hear from a fellow Canadian! Thanks for the compliments. This is a topic that I feel passionately about - and we can make a difference, each and every one of us.

      Drop by again! I've got lots of hubs on green topics... ;-)

    • Doc Snow profile image

      Doc Snow 9 years ago from Camden, South Carolina

      Nice work, Monique. It's great that you link the big problems of the ocean to small but practical actions that we can take. A lot of people haven't yet become aware of the acidification issue, and there's some data that it is already affecting some sensitive populations of marine crustaceans.

      (I must admit that I also like the Canadian--and specifically Ontarian--content, as I'm originally from the Sault, and lived near Sutton, ON, for several years.)

      Thanks again for a good, well-written hub!

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 9 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      It can be - the trick I think to despair is to do what we can and be willing to do more as we go along. It's not big things on an individual level - but if more of us focus on living well with less consumption, I do think we can back away from whatever brink we are at.

      Here's hoping that us and lemmings have a lot less in commong - especially that business of going over the cliff in groups.

    • Ralph Deeds profile image

      Ralph Deeds 9 years ago from Birmingham, Michigan

      Scary, isn't it? Nice job.

    • profile image

      Tess Rousseau 9 years ago

      This certainly pulls things into our awareness and therefore we are able to do little things which will help things to improve. I think that, I too, have been overwhelmed by some of the written word about our planet and took the old idea, at times, that things are so bad that what's the difference? I might as well not bother, because I can't make a difference. Thanks for reminding me that little things do indeed help and that if we all do something we will go in the right direction.

    • MoniqueAttinger profile image

      MoniqueAttinger 9 years ago from Georgetown, ON

      Melody - you are most welcome. Thank you for reading. I believe that part of the cure for despair is knowledge: the other part of the cure is action. I also believe that everything we need to address the earth's health is here - the technologies and the alternatives - and that now is the time to put those technologies and alternatives in place.

    • Melody Lagrimas profile image

      Melody Lagrimas 9 years ago from Philippines

      This hub provides a good resource of environmental awareness and tips to save the earth. Great, thanks for posting this, Monique.


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