‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and Climate Change

‘Ocean’s Eleven’ and Climate Change

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The title of Film “Ocean’s Eleven” has already entered into modern dictionaries. Impact of  Climate on Oceans is “Ocean’s eleven” !  

The title of 1960 film-Ocean’s 11-starring Frank Sinatra and its remake in 2001-Ocean’s Eleven-starring George Clooney, has already entered into modern dictionaries.When a project that is highly convoluted and byzantine requiring arduous planning and management-as done by 11 guys robbing a high security casino vault in the film- is now called ‘Ocean’s Eleven’.

Task of understanding of the complex role of oceans that occupy 70 percent of the Earth’s surface, has now become a real ‘ocean’s eleven’. Oceans are where life on the earth began. They are termed as earth’s heart that pumps fresh water in the atmosphere and then back on the earth, carries nutrients for the marine life on which depend billions of people for their food. Oceans not only gave birth to life on the earth three and half billion years back, but continued to feed it to date.

Come the emissions of human-induced green house gasses (GHGs) and this smoothly storyline becomes complex and plot turns into cryptic puzzle. There is massive transformation taking place of the oceanic life which scientists have just started understanding. It is not only in terms of sea level rise due to global warming that is predicted to cause migration of millions of climate-refugees away from their home in coastal regions. The scientists are now predicting unprecedented migration of thousands of marine species to higher latitudes away from warmer and more acidic sea water in which the marine species cannot thrive. Many are predicted to die on the way during migration and possibility of extinction of certain species is predicted to accelerate.

New reports from National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) published in prestigious journals-Science and Nature-unfold such scenarios based on the physical and chemical processes taking place on the surface waters and deep in the seas. These findings go beyond the latest reports of fifth global assessment of Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) released in 2014 .These shocking scenarios backed by observations and related science were the central topics of the discussions among the scientists and policy makers in the Conference held in UNESCO-Paris 7-10 July on “ Our Common Future under Climate Change” .

IPCC’s assessment reports released between September 2013 and November 2014 have stated with high level of confidence that rapidly accelerating human induced atmospheric concentration of carbon dioxide and other green house gases ( GHGs) will produce fundamental changes to physical, chemical and biological changes that pose serious risks to humans everywhere.

Till now rise in sea level of about 0.5 to 1.0 meter by 2100 has been predominant topic of the global discussion in context of the climate change and oceans. However, the depths of the oceans and its currents are now revealing the shocking stories hitherto unknown to the mankind. The marine chain is complex flow of currents that bring nutrients to fish and other marine species. Such flow of nutrients to more brighter and upper layers of oceans where half of the world’s marine life flourishes is slowing down. Coupled with reduced oxygen content due to higher concentration of carbon dioxide in sea-water and rising acidity, the devious plot of mass extinction of marine species is set in. The present and predicted impacts of those observations are severe and irreversible , particularly to the poor societies in the developing countries that depend on fisheries and marine products. Climate negotiators cannot just ignore these new findings as they affect the survival of common people whose votes are important for the negotiators’ survival.

The scientists are now fearing that our understanding of how ocean currents are structured and how they transform due to warming (physical change) and react due to increased acidity (chemical change) is in its infancy and should now be on the top priority for the climate research.

The story-line of ‘marine robbery’ gets further entangled by the acute impact on coral reefs. Increased acidification of the oceans due to increased absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere reduces the calcification of the marine organisms like coral on which 25 percent of whole marine life and nearly 4000 species of fish survive. The fish that live on coral reefs are a major source for over a billion people worldwide of which 85 percent rely principally on fish as their major source of protein. 500 million people living within 50 km of the coast, communities, particularly small-scale farmers in Indian sub-continent and other Southeast Asia are heavily reliant fish for their livelihoods. Globally, the estimate of the services provided by coral reefs including fish supply as per NOAA is $30 billion. These numbers do not take into account the value of deep-sea corals which are home for many commercially valuable species and thus additional fisheries value. These valuable corals in the safe-vault of oceans are now open for robbery.

The observed slow-down of nutrient flow, warming and acidification of sea-water, mainly in tropical region is speeding up the destruction of coral reef. As per latest report by the authors of IPCC chapters, it is almost certain that coral reef would disappear by 2050, just about 35 years from now, putting livelihood of hundreds and millions of people at risk.

Depleting fish stocks are already forcing fishermen to go far from their coast to international water and increasingly become prisoners of neighboring countries as they enter their waters. Somali’s pirates emerged mainly due to rich country’s ships started harvesting fish from their water. ‘When our cries for help went unheeded, pirates took the rules in their hands’, said one of the climate negotiator from Somalia in recent meeting. ‘Fishing conflicts’ among countries like Somalia, Sri Lanka, Pakistan , China, Japan have their origin in emissions of carbon dioxide and climate change.

Call for more research may sound hollow, as by the time the research is over, the ocean’s treasure will probably be stolen.   We need smarter plan, like in ‘Ocean’s eleven’.END

By Rajendra Shende, Chairma , TERRE Policy Centre , IIT Alumnus, and former Director UNEP

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