October 28th, 2013
The ocean’s health is like someone who is middle-aged and has had too many burgers and smokes, according to Smithsonian Institution scientist Mary Hagedorn.
That’s not a stellar assessment if you like breathing – oceans produce about 50 percent of the oxygen on the planet.
At Climate One’s first off-site event in Monterey, experts discussed the impacts of global warming and how California could embrace an emerging blue technology industry.
“The health of the coastal economy is the health of the California economy,” said Jason Scorse, director of the Center for the Blue Economy at the Monterey Institute of International Studies.
With climate change causing ocean acidification and threatening biodiversity, our dependence on the ocean for food, health and jobs is more important now than ever before. But we are lacking a baseline of knowledge about complex ocean ecosystems.
“Unless you can measure something, you don’t know how to deal with it,” said Michael Jones, president of The Maritime Alliance in San Diego.
Regardless of how soon we can get sensors into the water, addressing climate change needs to be a No. 1 priority. There’s always going to be uncertainty with climate change, but uncertainty can’t be an excuse for inaction, Scorse said.
“This is immediate, this is now, this is accelerating, and the good side is people realize that,” he said.
Jones is involved with the blue technology industry in San Diego. One of his ideas for addressing rising seas is to construct large floating platforms for certain industries.
“Carthage had a whole harbor that was floating,” Jones said.
Hagedorn expressed concerns about the loss of biodiversity caused by higher temperatures, ocean acidification and lower oxygen levels. Some changes may seem subtle, while others directly affect humans, such as the loss of delicate oyster farms in the Northwestern U.S.
In Hawaii, citizens are starting to understand the impacts of climate shifts.
“People are getting very upset that their houses are now too close to the water,” said Hagedorn, who is also a research scientist with the Hawaii Institute of Marine Biology.
Scorse recommended implementing a system of managed retreat from the coasts, which could allow for much more public access. But instead, many areas are building seawalls and infrastructure to keep rising waters out.
“We can only do this for so long until we create other problems for ourselves,” Jones said, emphasizing that we need to do a better job of understanding interrelationships with oceans.
Overfishing is also a threat to the ocean ecosystem, but the only way we can feed 9 billion people is with protein from the ocean, Jones argued. Scientists and businesses need to work together because no one wants to hurt the ocean, he said.
Natural disasters and human health are also major concerns. Coral reefs – Hagedorn's specialty – serve as biodiversity hotspots and buffers for dangerous hurricanes. In terms of pollution, oceans have suffered in their absorbtion of carbon dioxide.
“Every second breath comes from the ocean,” Hagedorn said. “If we run out of oxygen, we’re in real deep trouble.”
Unfortunately, when it comes to environmental concerns, opinions are still disproportionately terrestrial, Scorse said.
“The ocean is out of sight, out of mind.”
- Danielle Torrent
The Commonwealth Club of California at the Monterey Institute of International Studies
October 28, 2013