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Eco550 – The Oceans, November 14, 2060
After flying around the Arctic spring and summer, fall classes felt a little tame, but I must admit I was glad for the calm spell. All I had to do was explain Liebig’s Law of the Minimum or some such every once in a while and change a lot of diapers.
I spent the morning checking up on the various UNGETF projects. Group 12 had started too late in the season to make any appreciable impact on Greenland melting that year. One American city, Philadelphia, had funded Sirella Corp. to run a Sunbug pilot project which had favourable results as far as power production was concerned, but the climatological effects were difficult to unravel from such a relatively small footprint. What is advertised is not always what you get, but Group 5 really did seem to be shut down, except for the Space Elevator guys, who still wanted to get to the Asteroid Belt minerals. Group 2 were running odd projects, but they weren’t getting much money. Even Baumgarten had gone on hold. The Group 8 pH guys were suddenly seeing a lot of money, as were the Group 13 ocean restorers.
After a light lunch, I headed for CCU.
I was a little dispirited and didn’t know how to start my lecture with a bang, so I just said, “For centuries humans have treated the oceans in two contradictory ways — as a pantry and as a sewer.
“In the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries, three major historical patterns changed the oceans. The first is industrial fishing. Large fishing fleets prowled the oceans of the world, fishing species after species to extinction and leading to the destruction of commercial fisheries. They went bankrupt financially and ecologically. As someone once succinctly put it, ‘No more fish; no more fishermen.’
“Your point of reference here is The Decimation of World Fisheries by Johnson et al. in Science, 2048. The earlier work of Boris Worm warned about this pattern and even earlier, The Tragedy of the Commons by Garrett Hardin in Science, 1968.
“Secondly, on land, the Green Revolution dramatically increased world grain reserves by plant breeding, irrigation and the application of fertilizers. Your point of reference here is anything by Norman Borlaug, also The Rise and Decline of Industrial Agriculture by Peterson, 2050. During heavy rains the fertilizers washed off the land, ran into rivers and eventually spread from the mouths of major rivers where they triggered the furious growth of algal blooms, which depleted the water of oxygen. These areas came to be called somewhat dramatically, Dead Zones. With the spread of industrial agriculture, these areas claimed some 23% of the ocean surface at the turn of the Millenium. By 2040, that percentage was up to to 38%.
“Thirdly, while this was going on, the amount of CO2 in the atmosphere was steadily rising. Your references here are the IPCC reports and the Keeling Curve. CO2 dissolves in water to form an acid. This has been known since the 19th century. Indeed, if you check the work of Svante Arrhenius who first calculated the details of the greenhouse effect in 1895, you’ll note that his paper refers to ‘carbonic acid’, ie. CO2 dissolved in water. With CO2 in the atmosphere rising, the ocean has been becoming more acidic.”
I opened a wallscreen and put up a graphic showing the Keeling Curve and the change in ocean pH since 1955.
“In the oceans, numerous creatures have the ability to form shells. They do this by taking elements from the water they filter — typically forms of calcium, calcium carbonate is common — to assemble their shells. A more acidic environment interferes with this process.
“Shellfish, lobsters, crabs — these large creatures are affected, but more critically for our purposes today, calcifying plankton are also affected. And plankton form a major part of the global oxygen cycle.
“Worse yet, the anaerobic bacteria which do thrive without oxygen tend to produce gases we don’t want, such as methane and hydrogen sulfide.
“So where does that leave us?
“We have ocean gyres littered with tons of plastic debris, waters full of jellyfish and we have anoxic events.
“Anoxic events. Anoxia. It sounds so innocuous. Like some obscure tropical disease you might run across in a 19th century travel report. How about mass suffocation? Does that bring the import of what we face closer to home?
“Anoxia — no oxygen. Hypoxia — lack of oxygen. Fish have gills. They circulate water through these membranes to get the oxygen they require. And if there is no oxygen dissolved in the water, they die.
“More worrisome, more acidic oceans are giving rise to falling oxygen levels in the atmosphere. I scarce need to to say it, but this is not good.
“So what is UNGETF doing about it?
“UNGETF has formed a new group — Group 13 — to investigate the problem and formulate solutions.
“We already know part of the solution. Raise the pH of the ocean again. And to this end, Group 8 is busy grinding tons of basic minerals, primarily olivantine, to scatter in the ocean conveyor belt — in the Straits of Malacca, off South Africa, off Florida and off the Aleutians.
“The Oxygen Gang is also deeply involved in conservation trying to ensure the survival of important species. They have huge tanks both onshore and offshore. They can never restore the oceans to what they were, but with any luck they think they can preserve enough species to populate a viable oceanic ecosystem in the future.
“So here is your assignment: What is wrong with this pattern?
“Humans cause a problem and then humans try to patch it up. When are we going to learn how to avoid creating the problem in the first place? I’d like at least 2500 words on the growth and collapse of world fisheries, with emphasis on the primary drivers. Shall we say in two weeks from now.”
It was a sombre group that filed from the room that day.
Excerpted from _The Bottleneck Years_ by H.E. Taylor
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Last modified June 10, 2014