Ocean ecosystems are vital for mitigating climate change, but they are at risk of collapse due to the ecological crisis. The following article was published in the July-August 2020 issue of NewsNotes

With increasing urgency, scientists are raising the alarm about the need to protect oceans from ecological devastation, especially given their important role in mitigating global climate change. Even during the pandemic, scientists and experts are working hard to find solutions that will protect the world’s oceans, including through innovative technology and preservation efforts. 

The oceans, which make up 71 percent of the planet’s surface area, play a critical part in mitigating climate change by absorbing the excess heat and carbon created by human industry, a role known as a heat and carbon “sink.” According to the UN, about 30 percent of the excess carbon dioxide produced by humans is stored in the oceans, raising the amount of carbon dioxide in the oceans by 35 percent since the industrial revolution. 

The resulting rise in temperature and acidity of the oceans has serious consequences for ocean ecosystems and human communities, including through threatening marine life, causing changes in weather patterns, increasing the frequency of storms, and contributing to sea level rise. In addition, eight million tons of plastics enter the ocean every year through human disposal. 

Rising ocean acidity is also leading to coral “bleaching,” or the loss of the vast coral reefs which support a large portion of ocean marine life. An estimated 50 percent of the world’s coral reefs have already become “bleached.” Scientists are worried that oceans will soon reach their breaking point in terms of degradation, causing ecosystems to collapse and weakening the capacity of the oceans as a carbon “sink.”

Experts at the UN are working hard to increase global awareness of the threats to the ocean and help people connect it to other human development goals and concerns. One of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals for 2030 is called “Life Below Water” and focuses on the need to protect oceans for the sake of the ecosystems themselves, for the estimated 3 billion people who directly rely on marine and coastal biodiversity for their livelihoods, and for all life on earth that is threatened by a changing climate. 

The 2020 Oceans Conference in Lisbon was set to address various challenges to the ocean, advance research on solutions for ocean protection, and help make connections between protecting the oceans and other human development goals. It had to be postponed due to the pandemic.

World Oceans Day, held on June 8 each year, is another opportunity to advance awareness of the importance of oceans for our global wellbeing. At this year’s virtual World Oceans Day festivities, the theme was “Innovation for a Sustainable Ocean.” The online gatherings focused on new technologies that can protect ocean ecosystems and on the capacity of oceans themselves to address environmental challenges. 

“As the challenges to the ocean continue to grow, so does the need for novel solutions,” the Ocean Newsletter said. “[World Oceans Day] will shed light on ocean innovations from around the globe in areas of need that are both promising and proven, instill optimism, and have demonstrated the ability to scale effectively. It will also provide a platform to hear from thought leaders who are paving new paths forward for the health of the ocean and the planet.”

Experts presented several examples of innovative technology during the World Oceans Day virtual gatherings. One is the Great Bubble Barrier, which seeks to decrease plastic pollution in the oceans by addressing the fact that two-thirds of ocean plastic comes from rivers. The bubble barrier is a tube that lies at the bottom of a river and produces a “curtain” of air bubbles to divert plastic wastes to the shore, where it can be collected. Innovators say this solution can successfully divert 86 percent of plastic waste without affecting ships or fish. Another example is the use of ocean waves to power water desalination, which can provide clean water for coastal communities.

As helpful as technological innovations may be, many experts emphasize that we cannot rely on technology alone to preserve these ecosystems; prevention of climate change and conservation of natural ecosystems is critical. Although ocean preservation is first and foremost the responsibility of individual nations, this will not be achieved without robust initiatives at both the regional and global levels. Carbon dioxide increase, which is responsible for climate change, sea level rise, ocean acidification, and coral bleaching, cannot be reversed without global cooperation.

Peter Thompson, the UN Secretary General’s Special Envoy for the Ocean, remarked, “In 2021 the UN will launch the UN Decade of Ocean Science for Sustainable Development. To achieve the resilient future we want for people and planet, the development of the Sustainable Blue [Ocean] Economy will depend overwhelmingly on innovation and ocean science.”

Photo available on pixabay.