Ocean Action Hub

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If you drop plastic in the ocean, where does it end up?

29 June 2017 - Modelling shows that ocean currents can concentrate slow-degrading debris in certain parts of the world’s oceans, leading to so-called ‘garbage patches’

29 June 2017 - It is estimated that between four and 12m metric tonnes of plastic makes its way into the ocean each year. This figure is only likely to rise, and a 2016 report predicted that by 2050 the amount of plastic in the sea will outweigh the amount of fish.

A normal plastic bottle takes about 450 years to break down completely, so the components of a bottle dropped in the ocean today could still be polluting the waters for our great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-great-grandchildren.

A lot of plastic debris in the ocean breaks down into smaller pieces and is ingested by marine life, and it is thought that a significant amount sinks to the sea bed. But a lot of it just floats around, and thanks to sophisticated modelling of ocean currents using drifting buoys, we can see where much of it ends up.

Oceanographer Erik van Sebille has shown that, thanks to strong ocean currents known as gyres, huge amounts of plastic end up in six “garbage patches” around the world, the largest one being in the north Pacific.

As can be seen in the image above, a bottle dropped in the water off the coast of China, near Shanghai, is likely be carried eastward by the north Pacific gyre and end up circulating a few hundred miles off the coast of the US.

A bottle dropped off the Mexican coast, near Acapulco, is likely to be caught in the same gyre. Some of the plastic waste drifts south, but a huge amount is swept west towards Asia before floating north and ending up in the same area – the so-called Great Pacific Garbage Patch.

The North Atlantic is home to another powerful current. The image below shows what happens to plastic debris that enters the ocean around New York. Initially a lot of it heads over to Europe, with concentration in the Bay of Biscay and, to a lesser extent, the North Sea, but the majority is trapped by the current and ends up floating in the middle of the ocean.

It’s a similar story in the UK. A bottle dropped in the sea off Cornwall may well be dragged through the channel towards Scandinavia, but the greatest concentrations are again in the Bay of Biscay and the western North Atlantic.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/jun/29/if-you-drop-plastic-...

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New study confirms the oceans are warming rapidly

26 June 2017 - Although there’s some uncertainty in the distribution among Earth’s ocean basins, there’s no question that the ocean is heating rapidly.

26 June 2017 - As humans put ever more heat-trapping gases into the atmosphere, the Earth heats up. These are the basics of global warming. But where does the heat go? How much extra heat is there? And how accurate are our measurements? These are questions that climate scientists ask. If we can answer these questions, it will better help us prepare for a future with a very different climate. It will also better help us predict what that future climate will be.

The most important measurement of global warming is in the oceans. In fact, “global warming” is really “ocean warming.” If you are going to measure the changing climate of the oceans, you need to have many sensors spread out across the globe that take measurements from the ocean surface to the very depths of the waters. Importantly, you need to have measurements that span decades so a long-term trend can be established. 

These difficulties are tackled by oceanographers, and a significant advancement was presented in a paper just published in the journal Climate Dynamics. That paper, which I was fortunate to be involved with, looked at three different ocean temperature measurements made by three different groups. We found that regardless of whose data was used or where the data was gathered, the oceans are warming.

In the paper, we describe perhaps the three most important factors that affect ocean-temperature accuracy. First, sensors can have biases (they can be “hot” or “cold”), and these biases can change over time. An example of biases was identified in the 1940s. Then, many ocean temperature measurements were made using buckets that gathered water from ships. Sensors put into the buckets would give the water temperature. Then, a new temperature sensing approach started to come online where temperatures were measured using ship hull-based sensors at engine intake ports. It turns out that bucket measurements are slightly cooler than measurements made using hull sensors, which are closer to the engine of the ship.

During World War II, the British Navy cut back on its measurements (using buckets) and the US Navy expanded its measurements (using hull sensors); consequently, a sharp warming in oceans was seen in the data. But this warming was an artifact of the change from buckets to hull sensors. After the war, when the British fleet re-expanded its bucket measurements, the ocean temperatures seemed to fall a bit. Again, this was an artifact from the data collection. Other such biases and artifacts arose throughout the years as oceanographers have updated measurement equipment. If you want the true rate of ocean temperature change, you have to remove these biases.

Currently, we are heavily using the ARGO fleet, which contains approximately 3800 autonomous devices spread out more or less uniformly across the ocean, but these only entered service in 2005. Prior to that, temperatures measurements were not uniform in the oceans. As a consequence, scientists have to use what is called a “mapping” procedure to interpolate temperatures between temperature measurements. Sort of like filling in the gaps where no data exist. The mapping strategy used by scientists can affect the ocean temperature measurements.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/20...

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We only have 20 years to save the oceans

15 May 2017 - A revolution in thinking is needed to protect this vital commons.

15 May 2017 - The oceans are alarmingly unhealthy and getting sicker fast. At first, crises were localised, as in the collapse of Newfoundland cod and the lifeless dead zone in the Baltic Sea due to runoff of agricultural waste. Now the problems are global.

Ocean fisheries have been pushed past the limit for the 1 billion people who have no readily available protein substitute, and worldwide there are now more than 400 marine dead zones - areas starved of oxygen – up from 49 in the 1960s. Global piracy, modern slavery, and a lawless supply chain are disguising the source, species, and healthiness of one fifth of global seafood. In 2012, almost three in five of 81 retail outlets sampled in New York City were found to be selling flagrantly mislabelled fish.

Rapidly warming and rising seas are powering stronger hurricanes and storm surges, eating away at our coastal lands and cities, presenting the ominous prospect of hundreds of millions of climate refugees within the next few decades. The UN’s sustainable development goals for the environment, biodiversity, and human wellbeing will be impossible to achieve – with severe consequences for people and the global commons – unless we turn things around very fast.

Fisheries present the most obvious solutions. Over 80% of the global fleet makes zero or negative profit, and is propped up by about $35bn (£27bn) in annual subsidies. Removing subsidies would dramatically decrease fishing fleets by roughly 60%; stocks would immediately rebound. Surprisingly few jobs would be lost because most are in small-scale fisheries with few, if any, subsidies. Fish catches in developing countries would stay closer to home, where people need them most, instead of being siphoned off to the US, Europe, and Japan.

Rebuilding depleted fisheries involves eliminating harmful fishing practices and establishing large marine protected areas to provide refuges. There have been important breakthroughs, including the 1990s United Nations ban on high seas drift nets to reduce the harmful bycatch of sea turtles and dolphins, though law-breaking remains a major threat. The UN also nearly passed a global ban on deep-sea trawling in 2006 and, despite this initial failure, the movement is still very much alive. In 2016, the European parliament banned all trawling below 800 metres in EU waters, as well as fishing in areas with vulnerable ecosystems.

The US, Australia, and the UK have established huge marine protected areas in the Indo-Pacific, and the international Commission for the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources designated the Ross Sea as the world’s largest marine protected area (MPA) in 2016. The total proportion of the oceans in MPAs still hovers around 3%, with only 1% closed to fishing – but they provide critically important refuges for an enormous variety of species and the trends are moving in the right direction.

Closing the high seas to fishing would make financial as well as conservation sense. Bordering countries would make up for lost income from spillover into their national exclusive economic zones: more than 99% of high seas fisheries exploit species also caught in them. Only the half dozen wealthy countries that dominate the high seas fishery would lose out. Developing countries, which lack the resources to participate in high seas fisheries that reduce their stocks, would benefit and global income inequality from fisheries would halve.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.theguardian.com/the-gef-partner-zone/2017/may/12/we-only-have-20-years-to-save-the-oceans#img-1

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Great Barrier Reef tourism: caught between commerce and conservation alarm

17 Apr 2017 - More people than ever are coming to see the reef and those who make a living showing it off want the world to know it’s still a natural wonder. But they worry about its future, and that of their 64,000-strong industry.

17 Apr 2017 - In the dark clouds gathering over the future of the Great Barrier Reef, there has been a small silver lining for the people who make their living showcasing the natural wonder.

When the reef was rocked by an unprecedented second mass bleaching event in the space of a year, the coral hardest-hit by heat stress lay mostly in the tourist-heavy latitudes between Cairns and Townsville.

But despite last year’s damage compounded by new cases dotted across 800 reefs in a 1,500km stretch, not a single reef tourism operator has been forced to seek out new ground to take visitors.

The Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, which licenses operators to visit designated reef sites, confirmed it has received one request to change a permit. And that was not because of bleaching but Cyclone Debbie further south, which damaged that other hub of reef tourism, the Whitsundays after it escaped the bleaching.

By an accident of geography, the tourist operators say, the most wondrous sites for public viewing, which tend to fall on the edge of the continental shelf near cooler, deeper waters, are the ones also spared the worst damage from bleaching.

For now at least.

“Look, if we get another year of this, we’ll be in an absolute world of hurt and I know that,” Col McKenzie, chief executive of the Association of Marine Park Tourism Operators says.

Just 7% of the reef is set aside for tourism. But McKenzie says he is frustrated that “the story being put out there that there’s been severe bleaching throughout the whole area: it’s just not true”.

Aerial surveys released by scientists on 10 April showed back-to-back bleaching had occurred in a range along two-thirds of the world’s largest living structure. It indicated bleaching levels of more than 60% of coral this time were concentrated in reefs between Port Douglas and Townsville. It was the fourth mass bleaching to hit the reef in recorded history – all since 1998 – and coral scientists are alarmed the increasing regularity of these events gives stressed coral precious little chance to recover.

After last year’s bleaching, which killed off 22% of coral mainly in the isolated northern section of the reef, US magazine Outside went so far as to run an obituary on the reef: “25 million BC - 2016”.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/17/great-barrier-reef-t...

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Great Barrier Reef at 'terminal stage': Scientists despair at latest coral bleaching - The Guardian
9 Apr 2017 - ‘Last year was bad enough, this is a disaster,’ says one expert as Australia Research Council finds fresh damage across 8,000km
Back-to-back severe bleaching events have affected two-thirds of Australia’s Great Barrier Reef, new aerial surveys have found. The findings have caused alarm among scientists, who say the proximity of the 2016 and 2017 bleaching events is unprecedented for the reef, and will give damaged coral little chance to recover. Australia's politicians have betrayed the Great Barrier Reef and only the people can save it David Ritter Read more Scientists with the Australian Research Council’s Centre of Excellence for Coral Reef Studies last week completed aerial surveys of the world’s largest living structure, scoring bleaching at 800 individual coral reefs across 8,000km. The results show the two consecutive mass bleaching events have affected a 1,500km stretch, leaving only the reef’s southern third unscathed. Where last year’s bleaching was concentrated in the reef’s northern third, the 2017 event spread further south, and was most intense in the middle section of the Great Barrier Reef. This year’s mass bleaching, second in severity only to 2016, has occurred even in the absence of an El Niño event. Mass bleaching – a phenomenon caused by global warming-induced rises to sea surface temperatures – has occurred on the reef four times in recorded history. Prof Terry Hughes, who led the surveys, said the length of time coral needed to recover – about 10 years for fast-growing types – raised serious concerns about the increasing frequency of mass bleaching events. “The significance of bleaching this year is that it’s back to back, so there’s been zero time for recovery,” Hughes told the Guardian. “It’s too early yet to tell what the full death toll will be from this year’s bleaching, but clearly it will extend 500km south of last year’s bleaching.” READ FULL STORY HERE: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/apr/10/great-barrier-reef-t... VIDEO EXPLAINER: How did the Great Barrier Reef reach ‘terminal stage’?: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/video/2017/apr/10/great-barrier-...

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Indonesia pledges $1bn a year to curb ocean waste - The Guardian

2 Mar 2017 - Only China dumps more plastic in the ocean than Indonesia. But by 2025, the world’s largest archipelago aims to reduce marine waste by 70%.

Johnny Langenheim Indonesia has pledged up to $1bn a year to dramatically reduce the amount of plastic and other waste products polluting its waters. The announcement was made by Luhut Binsar Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s coordinating minister for maritime affairs at last week’s 2017 World Oceans Summit in Nusa Dua, Bali.

Pandjaitan told delegates at the conference that Indonesia would achieve a 70% reduction in marine waste within eight years. He proposed developing new industries that use biodegradable materials such as cassava and seaweed to produce plastic alternatives. Other measures could include a nationwide tax on plastic bags as well as a sustained public education campaign. 

The World Bank estimates that each of Indonesia’s 250 million inhabitants is responsible for between 0.8 and 1kg of plastic waste per annum. Only China dumps more waste in the ocean, according to a 2015 report in the journal Science.

The world’s second biggest plastic polluter also boasts the world’s highest levels of marine biodiversity. Indonesia lies at the heart of the Coral Triangle; its incredibly rich coral reef ecosystems support crucial fisheries, provide food security for millions and are a growing draw for tourists.

Plastic pollution is just one of the threats to these ecosystems services, but it’s a serious one. A recent study suggests that by 2050, there could be more plastic than biomass in the world’s oceans. Plastics have entered the marine food chain and are already reaching our dinner plates. 

Indonesia’s commitment is part of the UN’s new Clean Seas campaign, which aims to tackle consumer plastics through a range of actions – from cutting down on single use plastics such as shopping bags and coffee cups to pressuring firms to cut down on plastic packaging. Nine countries have already joined Indonesia in signing up to the campaign, including Uruguay, which will impose a tax on single use plastic bags and Costa Rica, which is promising better waste management and education.

But Indonesia’s target of a 70% reduction by 2025 is ambitious. Across the country’s 17,000 islands there is poor public understanding of the problems created by plastic waste. CONTINUE READING: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/the-coral-triangle/2017/mar/02/indonesia-pledges-us1-billion-a-year-to-curb-ocean-waste

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Images of new bleaching on Great Barrier Reef heighten fears of coral death - The Guardian

19 February 2017 Coral bleaching found near Palm Island as unusually warm waters are expected off eastern Australia, with areas hit in last year’s event in mortal dange

19 February 2017 Coral bleaching found near Palm Island as unusually warm waters are expected off eastern Australia, with areas hit in last year’s event in mortal danger. 

The embattled Great Barrier Reef could face yet more severe coral bleaching in the coming month, with areas badly hit by last year’s event at risk of death.

Images taken by local divers last week and shared exclusively with the Guardian by the Australian Marine Conservation Society show newly bleached corals discovered near Palm Island.

Most of the Great Barrier Reef has been placed on red alert for coral bleaching for the coming month by the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Its satellite thermal maps have projected unusually warm waters off eastern Australia after an extreme heatwave just over a week ago saw land temperatures reach above 47C in parts of the country.

According to the Great Barrier Reef Marine Park Authority, sea surface temperatures from Cape Tribulation to Townsville have been up to 2C higher than normal for the time of year for more than a month.

The NOAA Coral Reef Watch’s forecast for the next four weeks has placed an even higher level alert on parts of the far northern, northern and central reef, indicating mortality is likely.

Corals south of Cairns, in the Whitsundays and parts of the far northern reef that were badly hit by last year’s mass bleaching event are at fatal risk.

Imogen Zethoven, the Great Barrier Reef’s campaign director for the AMCS, said the projections for the next four weeks, plus evidence of new coral bleaching, were “extremely concerning”.

The bleaching that occurred over eight to nine months of last year was the worst-ever on record for the Great Barrier Reef, with as much as 85% of coral between Cape York and Lizard Island dying. Twenty-two per cent of corals over the entire reef are dead.

Zethoven pointed to projections by NOAA that severe bleaching of the Great Barrier Reef would occur annually by 2043 if nothing was done to reduce emissions.

“The reef will be gone before annual severe bleaching,” she said. “It won’t survive even biennial bleaching.”

CONTINUE READING: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/20/images-of-new-bleaching-on-great-barrier-reef-heighten-fears-of-coral-death

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Tiny plastic pellets found on 73% of UK beaches

17 December 2017 - A search of hundreds of beaches across the UK has found almost three-quarters of them are littered with tiny plastic pellets.

17 December 2017 - A search of hundreds of beaches across the UK has found almost three-quarters of them are littered with tiny plastic pellets. The lentil-size pellets known as “nurdles” are used as a raw material by industry to make new plastic products. But searches of 279 shorelines from Shetland to Scilly revealed that 205 (73%) contained pellets. 

The largest number recorded in the Great Winter Nurdle Hunt weekend in early February were found at Widemouth Bay in Cornwall, where 33 volunteers from the Widemouth Task Force collected about 127,500 pellets on a 100-metre stretch of beach. 

Thousands of the tiny pellets were spotted by volunteers over a short period in locations from Porth Neigwl in Wales to the shoreline in front of the dunes at Seaton Carew near Hartlepool, County Durham, and after stormy conditions on the Isle of Wight. 

More than 600 volunteers took part in the hunt organised by Fidra, the Scottish environmental charity, in collaboration with the Environmental Investigation Agency, Fauna and Flora International, Greenpeace, the Marine Conservation Society and Surfers Against Sewage. 

The lightweight nurdles can escape into the environment at various points during their manufacture, transport or use, spilling into rivers and oceans or getting into drains where they are washed out to sea. It is thought that billions are lost in the UK each year. 

Nurdles are one of the main sources of primary microplastics – small pieces of plastic that have not come from larger items broken down into little bits – in European seas and can cause damage to wildlife. 

Experts say they soak up chemical pollutants from their surroundings and then release the toxins into the animals, such as birds and fish, that eat them. 

Results from the hunt will be fed into the government’s consultation on microplastics, which is looking at ways of tackling the problem.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/17/tiny-plastic-pellets-found-on-73-of-uk-beaches

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Scientists study ocean absorption of human carbon pollution - The Guardian

16 February 2017 - Knowing the rate at which the oceans absorb carbon pollution is a key to understanding how fast climate change will occur. 

16 February 2017 - Knowing the rate at which the oceans absorb carbon pollution is a key to understanding how fast climate change will occur. 

As humans burn fossil fuels and release greenhouse gases, those gases enter the atmosphere where they cause increases in global temperatures and climate consequences such as more frequent and severe heat waves, droughts, changes to rainfall patterns, and rising seas. But for many years scientists have known that not all of the carbon dioxide we emit ends up in the atmosphere. About 40% actually gets absorbed in the ocean waters. 

I like to use an analogy from everyday experience: the ocean is a little like a soda. When we shake soda, it fizzes. That fizz is the carbon dioxide coming out of the liquid (that is why sodas are called “carbonated beverages”). We’re doing the reverse process in the climate. Our carbon dioxide is actually going into the oceans. 

The process of absorption is not simple – the amount of carbon dioxide that the ocean can hold depends on the ocean temperatures. Colder waters can absorb more carbon; warmer waters can absorb less. So, a prevailing scientific view is that as the oceans warm, they will become less and less capable of taking up carbon dioxide. As a result, more of our carbon pollution will stay in the atmosphere, exacerbating global warming. But it’s clear that at least for now, the oceans are doing us a tremendous favor by absorbing large amounts of carbon pollution.

How much carbon dioxide is being absorbed by the oceans is an active area of research. In particular, scientists are closely watching the oceans to see if their ability to absorb is changing over time. Such a study is the topic of a very recent paper published in the journal Nature. The authors studied recent ocean carbon dioxide uptake and in particular the mystery of why it appears the oceans are actually becoming more absorbing. 

The authors describe a slowdown in a major ocean current called the overturning circulation. That circulation brings dense salty water from the surface to the depths of the ocean while simultaneously bringing colder but less salty and dense water upwards. Why is this important current slowing down? It’ possible that global warming is a culprit. 

In fact, a slowdown of the current is a prediction of global warming. As the Earth warms, ice melt - especially near the Arctic - flows into the oceans. That meltwater has less salt and therefore is less dense than the surrounding waters. In a certain sense, the freshwater can block the overturning circulation, making it difficult for water near the surface to sink to the ocean depths. But it is also possible that the circulation just changes naturally.

CONTINUE READING: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/climate-consensus-97-per-cent/2017/feb/16/scientists-study-ocean-absorption-of-human-carbon-pollution

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'Extraordinary' levels of toxic pollution found in 10km deep Mariana trench - The Guardian

13 February 2017 - Presence of manmade chemicals in most remote place on planet shows nowhere is safe from human impact, say scientists

13 February 2017 - Presence of manmade chemicals in most remote place on planet shows nowhere is safe from human impact, say scientists

Scientists have discovered “extraordinary” levels of toxic pollution in the most remote and inaccessible place on the planet – the 10km deep Mariana trench in the Pacific Ocean.

Small crustaceans that live in the pitch-black waters of the trench, captured by a robotic submarine, were contaminated with 50 times more toxic chemicals than crabs that survive in heavily polluted rivers in China.

“We still think of the deep ocean as being this remote and pristine realm, safe from human impact, but our research shows that, sadly, this could not be further from the truth,” said Alan Jamieson of Newcastle University in the UK, who led the research.

“The fact that we found such extraordinary levels of these pollutants really brings home the long-term, devastating impact that mankind is having on the planet,” he said.

Jamieson’s team identified two key types of severely toxic industrial chemicals that were banned in the late 1970s, but do not break down in the environment, known as persistent organic pollutants (POPs). These chemicals have previously been found at high levels in Inuit people in the Canadian Arctic and in killer whales and dolphins in western Europe.

The research, published in the journal Nature Ecology and Evolution, suggests that the POPs infiltrate the deepest parts of the oceans as dead animals and particles of plastic fall downwards. POPs accumulate in fat and are therefore concentrated in creatures up the food chain. They are also water-repellent and so stick to plastic waste.

Continue reading: https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/feb/13/extraordinary-levels-of-toxic-pollution-found-in-10km-deep-mariana-trench

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