The seas generate much of the oxygen we breathe and drive much of our weather. But most people know very little about the ocean below the surface and how it's related to climate change. Global warming is impacting our ocean, and its creatures, in more ways than we can guess. But what can be done about it?
Climate One recently welcomed three seafaring explorers who are working to answer that question.
At the age of 11, Liz Taylor was helping out with the Hydrolab undersea habitat, which hosted a number of researchers in the 1960’s, including her mother, ocean explorer Sylvia Earle. “My job as a kid was to man the radio overnight, make sure that everybody was still breathing,” Taylor remembers. “And be ready to alert the surface team if anything went amuck.”
Now, her company, DOER Marine, is working with Mission Blue (a research organization established by Earle) to build mini-submarines to explore the furthest and deepest reaches of the oceans.
One big problem they hope to solve is that of coral bleaching, the result of warming ocean temperatures. “We’re looking at this great bleaching that's going on in the Great Barrier Reef right now,” Taylor says. “It’s just devastating – about ninety percent gone of the Great Barrier Reef.”
With the vehicles they’re developing, researchers are able to venture into deeper waters, where corals may be surviving, and transplant them to shallower areas as temperatures cool. “We’re trying to collect them, and then to rear them in captivity in the same way that some other endangered species have been saved.”
Peter Willcox also came by his love of the sea at an early age. He began sailing with his parents and grandparents at six months. Years later, he joined Greenpeace as and served as captain of the iconic Rainbow Warrior, a Greenpeace ship that, in 1985, was sunk by French government agents while protesting nuclear testing in the Pacific. Photographer Fernando Pereira was killed in that incident, which is detailed in Willcox’ autobiography “Greenpeace Captain: My Adventures in Protecting the Future of Our Planet.”
Willcox related the story in detail to a rapt audience at the Commonwealth Club. “It was a bad day,” he says, “but all of us on the boat felt in some weird way that if we had scared the government of a first world superpower so badly they would set out to kill us, that we must be doing something right.”
The bombed ship is just one of the Greenpeace captain’s adventurous tales. In 2013 he was part of a crew captured by Russian commandos and imprisoned for protesting an oil drilling platform in international waters. He has braved forest-burning slave owners in the Amazon, exposed international conspiracies involving diamond-smuggling, gun-trading, and Al-Qaeda, and risked exposure to nuclear waste.
Stiv Wilson is a surfer-turned-activist who is focused on clearing the ocean of plastic waste. While surfing the seemingly pristine Oregon coast, Wilson remembers, “I noticed just tons and tons of plastic on the beach… that put me on this journey of working on plastics issues in the ocean for the rest my life.”
Stiv Wilson has worked on campaigns to ban plastic bags and water bottles as well as microbeads. He’s sailed over 35,000 nautical miles to four of the five oceanic "garbage patches," documenting and communicating maritime plastic pollution firsthand.
“I like to think of it as the visual evidence of climate change,” says Wilson. “About 10 percent of petroleum products go to the production of plastics. And the footprint of plastics per capita in the United States is about 326 pounds of plastic per person per year, fifty percent of which is single-use plastics.
“So the most impactful, empowering device is getting out of single-use plastics,” Wilson tells the audience. “You can literally reduce fifty percent of your footprint overnight.”
Willcox also brought up the devastating effects of overfishing. “Greenpeace believes that the oceans are a resource that need to be shared by everybody and can produce a lot of food for everybody,” he says. “But when we overfish a species into extinction, we’re destroying the resource. And we’ve done this over and over and over again. Most recently we have wiped out the tuna by three-quarters of their normal population…there's no regulations on the high seas, and that's something we desperately need to change.”
Not everybody in this country lives within driving distance of a coastline. But whether or not we can see and touch the ocean on a daily basis, as these warriors do, the oceans are important to us. Taylor frames it this way: “Do we like to breathe?
“You know, that’s what it comes down to,” she continues. “The plankton in the oceans are generating more oxygen than the rain forests. And we really need to look after them together.”
The good news, Taylor adds, is that everyone has the ability to make an impact for change. And it starts with simple awareness.
“The single-use plastic is by far I think the largest of the choices people can make. Whether they live in a completely landlocked area – if you have your soda bottle and it goes into a lake, and then it goes to the creek, and then it goes to the stream and it goes downriver. It’s going to get to the ocean in due course.
“So every choice we make every day, we have that opportunity to make a difference.”
Underwritten by the Bernard Osher Foundation
Written by: Anny Celsi