The Eco-Point of No Return?

A flurry of reports on climate change and plastic waste say the oceans are at a tipping point
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The language the United Nations  (U.N.) chose when releasing its climate change report could not have been clearer. “There is alarming evidence that important tipping points, leading to irreversible changes in major ecosystems and the planetary climate system, may already have been reached or passed,” the report stated. “Ecosystems as diverse as the Amazon rainforest and the Arctic tundra may be approaching thresholds of dramatic change through warming and drying. Mountain glaciers are in alarming retreat, and the downstream effects of reduced water supply in the driest months will have repercussions that transcend generations.”

And, the U.N. report states, there’s only about 10 to 12 years left of being able to live with current-level carbon dioxide emissions, if humanity has any chance of holding the planet to a brief “overshoot” in overall temperature rise, let alone begin to reverse some of the damage that’s been done. That stunning analysis by dozens of scientists from around the globe was among three reports released during October—including one from the World Wildlife Fund and another from researchers at Princeton University—and followed in November by a National Climate Assessment from 13 U.S. agencies based on more than 1,000 reports. The analysis didn’t just ring the bell loudly, but instead screeched like tornado sirens about the seriousness of climate change.

“It’s like being strongly heeled over in a 15- or 25-knot breeze in a sailboat, where the boat is screaming through the water on its edge, and it doesn’t take much—a gust of wind, somebody at the tiller who over-trims the mainsail—and that boat’s going to capsize,” George Leonard, chief scientist for the nonprofit advocacy group Ocean Conservancy, told Soundings. “I think these reports are a scientific manifestation of that. The Earth and the ocean are at this tipping point. We have a very short window of time to get the biodiversity crisis and the climate crisis under control, or we’re going to capsize. And you don’t want to capsize. A lot of these boats, you can’t right them. They’ll sink.”

The U.N. report asserts the need for immediate, unprecedented steps to address the overarching problem of global temperature rise, including a near total phase-out of burning coal as an energy source by 2050; land being converted from growing food to growing trees that store carbon; the rapid development of nonexistent technology to remove carbon dioxide from the air; and a fast jump in the percentage of electricity that comes from renewable sources.

For boaters, the future is not only about sea-level rise at marinas and waterfront homes—now being predicted in feet, not inches. It’s also about the makeup of the oceans. It’s about dramatic shifts in water temperature that are affecting where species of fish and seabirds can even survive. As an example of the severity of changes now being predicted, the U.N. report suggests a risk of totally ice-free summers in the Arctic Ocean not once per century, but once per decade. And depending on just how far humanity “overshoots” the projections on overall temperature rise, the U.N. report states, the total loss of tropical coral reefs becomes a more than 99 percent certainty.

And there are warnings of dramatic increases in coastal flooding along the Southeast coast, according to the National Climate Assessment from the U.S. government. Just one of the staggering likelihoods is having as many as 180 tidal floods a year in Charleston, South Carolina, by 2045, compared to 11 per year in 2014. “It’s increasing storms, damage, insurance costs—all very expensive things if you have a small boat in a marina in Florida,” says Leonard. “Sea-level rise is complicating this further, again in places like Florida,” says Leonard. “If you go out to fish, lots of different species are moving in response to the warmer waters. Some are going deeper into the Gulf of Mexico. If you’re a boater, you are experiencing the kinds of things that these reports are talking about. And if you’re an older scuba diver, you’ve actually seen the reefs die over your lifetime,” he adds. “I’m in my 50s, and there were amazing reefs in the tropics. They’re gone. I think that people who spend time on the water are experiencing, in very visceral ways, the very things that the scientific community is now documenting.”

The report in the journal Nature stated that the situation in the world’s oceans is even worse than scientists have long believed. That research, led by Laure Resplandy, a geoscientist at Princeton, shows that the oceans have retained 60 percent more heat each year than scientists previously realized. The amounts cited in the research are more than twice the rates of long-term warming estimates from the 1960s and ‘70s, which means the overall rate of warming — and its effects — would be at the upper end of earlier predictions. “We thought we got away with not a lot of warming in the ocean and atmosphere for the amount of CO2 emitted,” Resplandy told The Washington Post. “But we were wrong. The planet warmed more than we thought.”

This year’s Living Planet Report from the World Wildlife Fund also paints an in-depth portrait of the dire situation for coral reefs, which support more than a quarter of marine life. “The world has already lost about half of its shallow-water corals in only 30 years,” the report states. “If current trends continue, up to 90 percent of the world’s coral reefs might be gone by midcentury. The implications of this for the planet and all of humanity are vast.”

Scientist George Leonard of Ocean Conservancy

Scientist George Leonard of Ocean Conservancy

One region where the threat is especially keen is in the Caribbean, the report states, because so much of human life there—from food sources to livelihoods—is dependent upon thriving ocean biodiversity. Also under eco-assault are coastal mangroves, which protect homes and businesses from storms and sequester nearly five times more carbon than tropical forests while serving as nurseries to juvenile fish. The extent of mangrove coverage has declined by 30 percent to 50 percent in the past half-century, the report states.

Pressure on the world’s fish stocks, too, is unprecedented, according to the Living Planet Report. We’re now fishing more than half the world’s oceans, an area of more than 77 million square miles. “Zones of moderately heavy to heavy fishing intensity now wrap around every continent,” the report states, “affecting all coastal areas and many parts of the high seas.”

Leonard, with the Ocean Conservancy, says many things that boaters are experiencing on the waters from New England to the Bahamas are regional symptoms of the big-picture issues that the recent reports document. Whether it’s lobsters moving north from the Gulf of Maine to find colder water or the severity of recent hurricanes in places like Florida’s    Panhandle region, many of the regional issues tie directly back to what scientists are documenting about climate change as a whole.

“The red tide in Florida is a good example of whether you slice and dice this or try to talk about it as a system,” he says. “The red tide is a combination of factors: nutrient pollution coming from land, changes in water flows, warmer water, stratification, etcetera—it can get complicated real quick. But if we’re honest with ourselves, what we’re seeing is a series of cascading and interrelated changes going on there and across the globe.”

And then there are the plastics. An entire section of the Living Planet Report is dedicated to the amount of plastic waste now fouling the world’s oceans. According to one statistic, 90 percent of seabirds now have fragments of plastic in their stomachs, compared to an estimated 5 percent in 1960. If no action is taken, the report states, “Plastic will be found in the digestive tracts of 99 percent of all seabird species by 2050.”

For some industries, all of the information being presented seems overwhelming, and many are uncertain how to move forward. Thom Dammrich, head of the National Marine Manufacturers Association, told Soundings the NMMA is still trying to make sense of what’s going on. “We currently don’t have clear insight as to the exact impact from climate change on recreational boating,” he said. It’s something we’re learning more about every day.”

Most individuals respond to climate-change news by trying to make changes in their    personal lives. That’s one reason why this year’s Progressive Miami International Boat Show is planning to have a new Conservation Village, with exhibits that showcase marine conservation priorities. “Learning more about how climate change impacts boating and doing what we can together, as boaters and as an industry, are essential as we work to protect our waters for generations to come,” Dammrich added.

Taking small, personal steps such as making a boat more eco-friendly is a good thing, Leonard says, but to address where things stand today, boaters who care about climate change are going to have to think on a bigger scale as well. “The individual decisions you make in your daily life—how much fertilizer you put on the lawn, whether you drive a Prius or a Hummer, eating sustainable seafood, staying away from plastic—all of those things add up in terms of environmental impact, and they also send big signals into the marketplace about what we as a collective are expecting.

“But to be frank,” he continues, “what we need is for the industries to do a couple of things. First, acknowledge and recognize what’s happening. Second, support science and scientists and the scientific way of thinking, and support policies that are going to turn this around.” Leonard again references the image of the heeled-over, straining sailboat. He interprets the recent reports as the need for an immediate and profound course correction. “We need to act in a big and fundamentally different way. We need everybody on deck. That’s true on a sailboat when a squall blows, and it’s also true given where the world is right now.”

This article originally appeared in the February 2019 issue.