International Programme on the State of the Ocean expert panel…Credit: IPSO
The ocean big and wide and mighty…is damaged, seriously damaged. How to get that message across in an era when so much propaganda is directed toward destroying the credibility of science? For years scientists have been warning that the oceans are degrading – acidification, warming, overfishing, pollution – each in turn has been studied and found to be a threat. It seems like crying wolf (or shark!), when everybody would prefer to ignore it.
Now along comes the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO), which put together a workshop and report summary for release 21 June 2011: International Earth System expert workshop on ocean stresses and impacts and they say ocean life is “at high risk of entering a phase of extinction of marine species unprecedented in human history.” In short, the state of the ocean is worse than previously thought.
An expert panel of 27 scientists, drawn from many ocean and marine specialties, examined and discussed research across the board of the many challenges to the health of the ocean. The challenges are not new: A growing acidification of many areas in the ocean that affects many forms of marine life, a rise in ocean temperature due to global warming, increased pollution in various regions, and overfishing with drastic reduction of fish stocks throughout the ocean all play a role; but the important news is that taken together the changes in the ocean are happening much faster than was thought.
Here are the panel/report conclusions:
• The combination of stressors on the ocean is creating the conditions associated with every previous major extinction of species in Earth’s history
• The speed and rate of degeneration in the ocean is far faster than anyone has predicted
• Many of the negative impacts previously identified are greater than the worst predictions
• Although difficult to assess because of the unprecedented speed of change, the first steps to globally significant extinction may have begun with a rise in the extinction threat to marine species such as reef-forming corals
The report supplies the case studies and data to back up these conclusions. The panel also supplied some recommendations:
• Stop exploitative fishing immediately, and police fishing on the high-seas
• Map inputs and then reduce sources of pollutants, especially plastics, agricultural fertilizer and human waste
• Make sharp reductions in greenhouse gas emissions
There’s even a decent sound bite: “If the Ocean goes down, it’s game over.”
Although the signs of change in the ocean are everywhere and the implications are generally understood, the science is not complete and is not totally conclusive. Science rarely is. Because climate change is involved, the report will trigger the professional chorus of global warming deniers. This probably means that despite the warnings and passion of the scientists involved, this report, the issue of the oceans decline, the loss of marine life – will be muted by confusing propaganda or seemingly more immediate political concerns and sexy scandals.
The problem for the IPSO and their warnings is that they, a bit like Cassandra, have no track record. Cassandra, a prophetess of ancient Greece, was cursed by the gods so that none would believe her prophecies. She represents the sharpest irony of the human condition: deep understanding combined with powerlessness. She may also represent the global sciences in the 21st century.