The Disaster We’ve Wrought on the World’s Oceans May Be Irrevocable

Originally published in Newsweek on July 2, 2014

In the great halls of La Boqueria, Barcelona’s central market, tourists, foodies, and cooks gather every day to marvel at the fresh food, like pilgrims at the site of a miracle. The chief shrines are the fish counters, where thousands of sea creatures making up dozens of species gleam pink and gray on mounds of ice. But to many ocean scientists this is not a display of the ocean’s bounty but a museum—by the end of this century, many of these animals may be history due to man’s reckless abuse of the planet. As we keep dumping greenhouse gases into the air, the oceans keep sucking them up, making the waters deadly to their inhabitants.

On the Boqueria’s fish stands I count 10 types of bivalves—creatures like clams, oysters, and mussels that use calcium carbonate to make their endlessly varied shells. In as little as 20 years they will be very different and, in some parts of the world, entirely gone. Then there are the ranks of huge Asian prawns and tiny shrimps, terra-cotta crabs from Scotland, and lobsters, magnificent admirals in blue fringed with gold. Lucky for them, these creatures make their shells differently (mostly out of a polymer called chitin), so the rapidly acidifying waters of our oceans won’t dissolve them as they will the exteriors of the bivalves. But the acidification—which some scientists believe is the fastest change in the ocean’s chemistry in 300 million years—appears to harm the working of the gills and change the behavior of the crustaceans when they are very young.

On the crushed ice sit a dozen kinds of finned creatures that the Spanish love—monkfish, hake, sardines, tuna. The Spaniards eat more fish than anyone else in Europe. The effect of changing ocean chemistry on fish health, longevity, and reproduction is not yet certain. But even now, many species on the Boqueria stalls are also on one or more European “at-risk” lists: under threat because of overfishing or changes in the chain of foods that supply them, or from the bigger threat of the changing ocean biogeochemistry.

An algae bloom clouds ocean water.Photo: Miknik |

The last is the least understood of these phenomena. Along the coasts and out in the deep, huge “dead zones” have been multiplying. They are the emptiest places on the planet, where there’s little oxygen and sometimes no life at all, almost entirely restricted to some unicellular organisms like bacteria. Vast blooms of algae—organisms that thrive in more acid (and less alkaline) seawater and are fed by pollution—have already rendered parts of the Baltic Sea pretty much dead. A third of the marine life in that sea, which once fed all of Northern Europe, is gone and may already be beyond hope of recovery.

“There’s a profound game-changing event going on in the life of the sea,” says Callum Roberts, a professor of marine conservation at the University of York, England. “The fact is that changes in alkalinity are going to cause massive reorganization of marine life, impacts on marine food webs, productivity, all sorts of things. We’re heading for a car crash here.”

Many of these risks are caused by one of the world’s most pressing problems: climate change. Rising greenhouse gases in the atmosphere are causing global temperatures to rise, which is leading to the melting of the polar ice caps, which in turn has resulted in rising sea levels and a host of ecological issues.

It’s also causing the chemical makeup of the world’s oceans to change so rapidly. Carbon dioxide, one of the key perpetrators in the lineup of man-made greenhouse gases, is absorbed by seawater, causing a chemical reaction near the ocean surface that results in lowered pH levels. And about one-third of all the man-made carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere ends up absorbed by the oceans. Carles Pelejero, a scientist working less than a mile from La Boqueria at the Institut de Ciències del Mar (ICM), on Barcelona’s seafront, calls it “climate change’s evil twin.”

He illustrates the basic mechanism to schoolchildren by getting them to take a straw and blow into a glass of water. A simple litmus test shows the children how the pH level drops as the carbon dioxide from their breath dissolves in the water. It’s a sign that naturally alkaline water is becoming less so—and it’s what is happening on a global scale as the oceans absorb a significant amount of the carbon dioxide we pump out through the burning of carbon fuels. “In preindustrial times the ocean’s pH was 8.2. It has already gone down to 8.1,” says Pelejero. “Depending on what we do, it will reach an average of 7.8 or 7.7 by 2100. It hasn’t been that low for 55 million years.” For reference, the pH scale runs from 0 to 14; the lower the number the more acidic, and the higher the more alkaline.

Pelejero leads part of the ICM’s marine biogeochemistry research, but his field is even more specific: marine paleo-reconstruction. You might call it seabed archaeology; it uses drills to take samples from deep in the sediment at the bottom of the ocean. Scientists can use those samples to work out how the geochemistry of sea creatures has changed over the millennia. Pelejero started in this business in the mid-1990s using the remains of plankton in the sediments on the ocean floor to determine historic sea surface temperatures.

Then, in 1998, while studying a graph at a conference, Joanie Kleypas, an American biologist working on coral reefs, had a eureka moment. When she suddenly realized that the lowered alkalinity at the end of the twenty-first century would in effect corrode the calcium carbonate foundation of the reefs to destruction, she was so horrified she left the room to be sick. Her paper on the threat, published in the journal Science in 1999, was an alarm call. Other scientists quickly dubbed the effect “ocean acidification”—although the seas would not actually turn to acid, the phrase, they reckoned, would emphasize the urgency and get action. Coral reefs are necessary to an estimated 25 percent of all marine life, including 4,000 species of fish. They are the rain forests of the sea.

Around the same time, Pelejero’s colleagues turned their core-sampling techniques to work out how the ocean and its animals behaved long ago, when the water pH was lower. What they found was horrifying. During a 100,000-year-long event known as the Paleo-Eocene Thermal Maximum (PETM), which occurred between the Paleo and Eocene epochs 55 million years ago, “you see that the sediment is quite white from the fossil shells—then suddenly it turns red,” Pelejero says. “Because there are no shells at all. Then it turns white again—but the change back took more than 100,000 years.” The first change from white to red represents a sudden die-off of shell-based life; the turn back to white shows the gradual return of shellfish over time. If projections hold, the pH change that killed off or radically altered many of the deep ocean shell animals will arrive again at the end of this century.

Other problems are likely to emerge because of the pH change. One of the suggestions is that the stable, solid form of methane—called clathrates—that lurks in the ocean sediment may be upset by changes in water chemistry and temperature and release the gas into the atmosphere. Methane is a greenhouse gas many times more damaging than carbon dioxide, which has, in the past, turbocharged global warming. This is called the “clathrate gun hypothesis,” and the core samples suggest that this is just what might have happened during the PETM, when large numbers of ocean species (particularly from the deeps of the seas) disappeared and the ocean surface was 9 to 16 degrees Fahrenheit warmer. That doesn’t sound like much. But it’s enough to radically alter life underwater—and to wreak havoc on land dwellers, too. Many of the world’s major cities would disappear beneath the rising waves as the ice melted and the water expanded. During the PETM, sea levels were as much as 350 feet higher than they are today— enough to obliterate most of present-day Europe, the northeast coast of the U.S., and Argentina, for example.

What worries Pelejero most is the rapidity of today’s changes. The same shifts that happened over the course of a few thousand years during the PETM are now due to happen over just a few centuries, counting from the beginning of the Industrial Revolution and the widespread use of fossil fuels. “The record tells us that, though pH has been lower in the past, this time the changes are happening about 10 times faster. And that means there is no time for species to evolve and adapt, or the ocean to buffer itself,” Pelejero says. “It’s clear that the ocean is acidifying, much clearer than that the world is warming. And we know that most of the effect is caused by man’s actions. The only argument among scientists is over how much damage is being done.”

Already some effects are being seen. Across the world, shells of some animals are thinner than they were 300 years ago. An acidification spike around the coast of British Columbia in February 2014 wiped out 10 million scallops. Foraminifera, the tiniest shelled plankton in the ocean, are having trouble growing (as they did during the PETM)—and plankton is the food base of every animal in the sea. Coccolithophores, the shelled plankton that process sunlight like a plant, and whose remains built the White Cliffs of Dover, seem to suffer from current changes in ocean chemistry.

Pteropods, tiny swimming snails, are the main diet of cold-water fish most commonly consumed in both Europe and North America—salmon, haddock, cod, and pollack. In the lab, pteropods dissolve in lowered alkali waters, like a tooth in Coca-Cola. In the Arctic, where acidification is progressing fastest, pteropods may already be on the way out. It is as though the earth were losing its grass, and the cows had nothing to eat.

A bulldozer clears algae from a beach in Tsingtao, a major city in Shandong Province, Eastern China.Photo: Gqh9354 |

Rising Tides Kill All

A day after visiting the fish markets, I lounged on the deck of a tiny former fishing boat off the northern Catalan coast, as oceanologists threw up into the lurching waves around us. We were off to take ICM’s monthly water samples.

The boat is skippered by a remarkable man, 63-year-old Josep Pascual, a legend around the fishing ports of the Costa Brava. As a boy, he went out in this boat with his father and grandfather to net fish for the market. “I used to listen to them, talking as fishermen do about the weather and the sea temperature, and I got interested.”

He decided to add some hard data to the family debate. So since the mid-1960s he has been building his own instruments and taking a daily record of sea temperatures at different depths in the Mediterranean current off the fishing port of Estartit, Spain. In that little harbor there’s a box containing an ingenious gadget attached to the seawall that measures the height of the sea.

“I built it from parts that were thrown out of the old meteorological station,” Pascual says. “I’d read in a book that there were no tides in the Mediterranean—I wanted to prove that was wrong.” He succeeded, and he has also shown that the average sea level in the Mediterranean has risen about 3.5 inches over the past 24 years. That is in line with the global calculations of melting ice cover made by climate change scientists. The rising sea levels, of course, are caused by greenhouse gases in the atmosphere—which are also what’s causing acidification.

Pascual’s work came to the attention of the ICM in the early 1970s. Ever since then, ICM and Pascual have worked together. The fishing nets and lines on the Fiera del Mar [Pascual’s boat] are now replaced by global positioning systems, depth-measuring tools, and complex thermometer instruments. They have done this long enough to prove significant warming of the Costa Brava* sea.

Seven years ago, sponsored chiefly by the Catalan and Spanish governments, Pascual, Pelejero, and their assistants started making monthly trips to measure the ocean’s acidity. These have yet to produce conclusive results—there hasn’t yet been enough time to confirm the clear drop in pH that has been observed out in the open oceans.

Pascual is a smiling, sea-worn man, his nut-brown face in sharp contrast to the biochemists’ laboratory pallor. I ask what he really thinks is going on. “What I’m shocked by most is the rising sea level—and I am convinced this is caused by climate change, and that it is mankind that has done it,” he says. “It’s worrying, because the oceans are so important in capturing the carbon. They thermo-regulate the planet. These changes in their systems are very big, and they should make us worry.”

Beach scattered with dead fish during an algae bloom.Photo: Jinlide |

Into the Dead Zone

Off the desert coast of Oman last winter, I saw the strangest thing I’d ever seen in a lifetime of sea voyaging. Heading in a rigid inflatable boat toward a snorkeling site, my family and I all gasped suddenly as the creamy white of the wake turned a virulent, toxic-looking green. It had an ammoniac stink, and it stayed that way for the next mile.

“No farming nearby? River estuaries?” asked Esther Garcés, a marine biologist at ICM, when I told her this story. None. The Omani coast I saw was mountain and desert. “Probably a normal, seasonal phytoplankton bloom.”

She showed me spectacular pictures, taken from a European Space Agency satellite, of a green-blue swirl occupying most of the Bay of Biscay, between western France and northern Spain. Garcés’s specialty is harmful blooms of algae and plankton: She makes weekly risk assessments for the whole of the Catalan coast. The chief issue is their potential harm to shellfish farms—when the bivalves eat the algae, the former can become toxic to humans who consume them later. (Less pressing is the fact that they make the tourist beaches look as if they are covered in green slime.)

All such blooms are on the increase, mostly due to pollution from humans on land. Sewage, extra carbon in the atmosphere, and the runoff of artificial fertilizers all feed different plankton forms, making the blooms fantastically big. Human tampering with the shape of the coast can create vast areas away from the waves where the algae can peacefully breed.

The twenty-first century’s algae can have adverse effects far beyond weird-colored water and a smell. The key problems come when plankton die. “The toxins released kill fish and other marine life,” says Garcés, “and then there’s the problem of hypoxia and dead zones.” As the algae blooms die out, the matter that drops from the blooms to the bottom of the ocean eats oxygen as it decomposes (with the help of the bacteria that feed on the dead plankton), and hypoxic (low oxygen) and anoxic (total depletion of oxygen) zones kill everything that needs oxygen to live.

Dead zones move and fluctuate, so they are hard to measure. Oceanographers believe they have increased exponentially since the 1960s, and now count over 400 across the globe. One of the world’s largest is off the Mississippi Delta, caused by algae blooms fed mainly by excess chemical fertilizers spread over the land through which the Mississippi flows. Though it changes from year to year, the Mississippi Delta dead zone has been recorded as large as 8,000 square miles, roughly the size of New Jersey.

Scientists diving in it are quoted by Roberts, in his book Ocean of Life: “As you go deeper, it gets kind of scary. Because there’s nothing there. There’s no fish, no organisms alive, so it’s just us.”

The Mississippi Delta zone is the world’s second biggest coastal hypoxic area, after the Black Sea. But out in the open oceans, hundreds of feet below the surface, there are dead zones so huge they may be bigger than the Sahara Desert—the largest lifeless spaces this side of the moon.

There are three different forces that create zones where there’s so little oxygen that most life forms disappear. “Upwellings” in parts of the ocean are natural, caused by ocean currents or undersea seismic activity. Periodically they bring nutrients and phytoplankton (a group of plankton that use sunlight for energy) to the surface. In sunlight this mass feeds on algae blooms, until it dies and the bacteria thrive in their turn, eating the dead plankton and absorbing more oxygen. The Black Sea is stagnant and dead from about 500 feet below its warm surface because of its natural geological structure and the fact that there are few currents to mix up the oxygen-rich surface with the dark, highly acidic waters below. But a crucial sea for human food, the Baltic, has died because of the mess humans make.

Algae blooms have been a feature of the Baltic since the nineteenth century, initially because nutrient-filled soil ran off as the native forest was cut down to fuel the industries and build the cities of Northern Europe. Then more plankton food was added by the runoff of pollution from the busy Baltic coastline (which includes major cities like St. Petersburg, Copenhagen, Stockholm, Riga, and Helsinki) as well as slurry from the industrialized pig farms that are a major business in parts of Germany and Denmark. Now much of the seabed is covered in life-choking seaweed (a multicellular type of algae), and fish eggs from species like cod cannot survive in the low-oxygen environment.

“The Nordic people have made a huge effort to control the runoff of nutrients into the Baltic,” says Garcés. “But it is too late. The nutrients don’t go away. Every time the organisms grow they die and go back to the bottom again, eating more oxygen. Biodiversity is like a dictionary, and this process in the ecosystem is like losing words. We cannot get them back.”

A degraded tropical coral reef. Global warming, ocean acidification, and human impact are having a devastating effect on the planet’s coral reef systems.Photo: Whitcomberd |

No Fish for You

The one thing that the Boqueria fishmongers don’t sell is jellyfish (there’s not much demand for them in Spain, or anywhere else in Europe), though you can find them, dried to a plastic scab, in some Chinese supermarkets. There are those who say that jellyfish and plankton are all that your average wild seafood eater will have for supper by the end of the century—the very rich will likely still be able to pay up for ultra-rare food items. That’s because as the food chain’s intricate links collapse, the complex species will go first, leaving only the most simple. “The oceans [will] revert to the earliest days of multicellular life,” Roberts dryly puts it. There’s a terrifying argument that jellyfish—who rather enjoy acidification—are already taking over the seas, if not the world.

The answers are not easy. Some of the clever “geoengineering” suggestions offered to tackle global warming—like artificially cutting off sunlight—won’t work for the oceans, because we can’t just incrementally slow down the acidification—we have to remove the excess carbon dioxide that’s already out there in the atmosphere. Doing that takes economically painful initiatives—replanting vast areas of forest to recapture carbon, for example, and, above all, simply stopping the burning of fossil fuels.

There are some causes for hope. Some world leaders are beginning to take these threats more seriously. In June, for example, the Obama administration announced a series of measures aimed to conserve the ocean as a key food supply for more than 3 billion of us. These included more ocean sanctuaries to curtail overfishing, and new funds to research ocean biochemistry, including acidification.

Roberts, for his part, says that he has been happy to see that coral reefs have proved more adaptable—faster and faster at recovering from the effects of acid and ozone layer depletion—than scientists previously thought. Recent research suggests that in the more acidic waters predicted for the late-twenty-first century, the reefs may survive a little better than Kleypas and her colleagues originally expected.

“That’s got to be cause for hope,” says Roberts. “But these are isolated instances—they say life is possible in these altered environments, they don’t say that means species will thrive in 2100. Evidence from around the world is that they will not. We have the loss of one of the world’s major habitats in the cards. It’s already happening.”


One thought on “The Disaster We’ve Wrought on the World’s Oceans May Be Irrevocable

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