Cli­mate sci­en­tists re­lease a flurry of re­ports warn­ing that the Earth and oceans are at a tip­ping point. Here’s what that means for boaters.

A flurry of re­ports on cli­mate change and plas­tic waste say the oceans are at a tip­ping point

Soundings - - Contents - — Kim Kavin

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 15or 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 longterm 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.”

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.”

About 90 per­cent of seabirds now have plas­tic rem­nants in their stom­achs.

Sci­en­tists say red tide is a re­gional symp­tom of the big-pic­ture is­sues.

Sci­en­tist Ge­orge Leonard of Ocean Con­ser­vancy

Re­ports say if the cli­mate cri­sis is not ad­dressed, the loss of coral reefs is a 99 per­cent cer­tainty.

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