Saturday, July 3, 2010

The Real Problem

The last time the oceans endured such a drastic change in chemistry was 65 million years ago, about the same time the dinosaurs went extinct.” -- Dr. Ken Caldeira, Stanford University

The Gulf of Mexico oil disaster has already produced a surface slick larger than Delaware, along with vast plumes of oil of untold size lurking beneath the surface. The spill, when and if BP manages to stop it by drilling relief wells (God, I hope that works), will probably total about 1 percent of the total volume of the Gulf of Mexico, based on current estimates.

We’re talking about a arge problem here, and I started researching for this column with the idea that the media were not covering it to the extent that it deserves. If BP does not manage to stop this leak (and they haven’t proven terribly adept at anything except making asses of themselves so far), there is no telling what irreversible damage could occur.

This could conceivably bubble into a 9/11-scale disaster, but we are not seeing 9/11-type coverage of it in the media, and the government is not showing a 9/11-type response. What gives?

Looking for facts, I stumbled into the above quote from Dr. Caldeira, a leading global ecologist. At first, it seemed to affirm my fears.

But, it turns out, he was not referring to the oil spill.

He was actually referring to ocean acidity. As oceans become more acidic, sea life finds it harder and harder to survive.

Why does this matter? Oceans absorb about 30 percent of all human-produced carbon, making them the largest carbon sink in the world. Microscopic plants called plankton are largely responsible for absorbing carbon and turning it into oxygen, much like land-based vegetation does.

Plankton, along with coral, mollusks, and everything that feeds on them, are vulnerable to increased acidity. The Pacific is already In fact, ocean water may become acidic enough over the next 50 years to corrode sea shells.

What is causing the increased acidity?

You guessed it -- too much carbon.

Too much burning coal and petroleum, in other words.

We’re fortunate to have plankton to clean up that mess for us, but it looks like we’re overloading their capacity. The result: worldwide plankton growth has steadily declined for the past 20 years.

The Gulf of Mexico situation, estimated at 500,000 to 800,000 barrels spewed into the ocean so far, is a colossal disaster. But Americans consume 25 to 50 times that much oil every single day.

Dr. Caldeira appeared on Good Morning America April 22, two days after the Deepwater Horizon explosion, before anybody knew about oil leaking into the Gulf of Mexico. He said, “We’re risking something that will change the way oceans are for the rest of human civilization.”

That seems optimistic. Without healthy oceans, there could be no human civilization.

At some point, the majority of us are going to realize that we depend on the Earth in a lot of ways we haven’t even discovered yet. We survive thanks to a delicate balance of unique circumstances.

Then again, those windmills are kind of an eyesore.

No comments: