Marine expert Sylvia Earle on a lifelong mission to save the oceans

The 82-year-old oceanographer has dedicated her life to saving the oceans and is urging people to take action before it’s too late





When I discovered the ocean, the things in the ocean that you don’t see anywhere else … I fell in love!

Sometimes it’s difficult for men to take you seriously as a scientist or an engineer. They are used to these fields being a men’s area. But if you treat others the way you would like to be treated, chances are you’ll have some success and be treated with respect. Rather than trying to act like a man, just be yourself.

Sardines and groupers gather for feeding time at the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

Off the shores of the East Cape region of Baja California Peninsula in Mexico, the turquoise waters are home to more than 800 species of marine life, from corals, fish and sea turtles, to dolphins.

Having spent over 7,000 hours submerged in the sea, and with more than five decades of marine research experience, 82-year-old oceanographer Sylvia Earle, dubbed “Her Deepness”, should have seen it all. However, the marine biologist is still surprised by what she sees every time she dives into this part of the ocean, known as the Cabo Pulmo National Marine Park.

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“I’ve been in Cabo Pulmo at least a dozen times over the years. Every time, I see something I’ve never seen before,” says Earle, who has been on underwater expeditions to oceans all round the world – from the Arctic to the Antarctic, and from the Indian to the Atlantic to the Pacific – for the last 50 years. “This time, it’s the sardines. I’ve never seen so many of these little fish gathered together. The other thing that is new for me even though I have spent thousands of hours underwater – I’ve never seen so many groupers together in one place. This was not a breeding aggregation. This was a feeding aggregation. They’re all there because lunch was being served.”

Groupers gather in the waters. Earle has dived into the waters of Cabo Pulmo at least a dozen times over the years, and each time she sees something she has not seen before.

Before this part of the Gulf of California was declared a national marine park in 1995, the Cabo Pulmo sea – once called the “aquarium of the world” by legendary explorer Jacques Cousteau – was heavily overfished and ruined by unrestrained tourism activities. Thanks to the efforts of the local community and conservation groups, the area has been gradually recovering and is now recognised as a Hope Spot under Earle’s global initiative, Mission Blue.

A National Geographic Society explorer-in-residence, Earle has dedicated her whole life to exploring the ocean and, in recent years, protecting it by launching Mission Blue with the TED Prize (a US$1 million award) she won in 2009.

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According to Mission Blue, while about 12 per cent of the land on Earth is under protection – such as sites designated as national parks – less than six per cent of the oceans is under such protection. Mission Blue encourages people all over the world to identify and nominate marine areas that are critical to the health of the oceans as Hope Spots. The aim is to protect these areas by raising public awareness, building collaborations, coordinating expeditions and advocating for legal protection.

“When you look at what’s happening to the world right now – the decline of the atmosphere, the changes in the oceans, the loss of forests and wildlife – you become really discouraged,” says Earle, Rolex’s ambassador since 1982.

Sunrise on the Sea of Cortez (Baja California) at the beach at Hotel Vidasoul, south of Cabo Pulmo

With a long history of supporting exploration and conservation projects, the Swiss luxury watchmaker is now sponsoring Mission Blue, along with a partnership with National Geographic backing pioneering explorers to safeguard the oceans, poles and mountains.

Earle adds, “But you could also say, ‘Well, now we know we have problems … We didn’t know what we could do to change the trajectory but now we know.’ We learned with whales: if you stop killing whales, there’s a chance they can recover.”

Given her tremendous contribution to safeguarding the world’s oceans, and to science, Earle has earned a long list of accolades. She led the first all-female team of aquanauts on a two-week research stay in the underwater laboratory Tektite II in 1970. In 1979, she set a women’s diving record of 381 metres to the ocean floor near Oahu.

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She was the first woman appointed as chief scientist of the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration in 1990. It has never been easy for women to excel in the world of science, which has always been dominated by men – especially in the old days when Earle started out. Earle revealed in a previous interview that she was once denied a teaching assistant job because of her gender. When she went on a six-week expedition in the Indian Ocean in 1964, she was the only woman out of 71 crew members.


“Sometimes it’s difficult for men to take you seriously as a scientist or an engineer. They are used to these fields being a men’s [area]. But if you treat others the way you would like to be treated, chances are you’ll have some success and be treated with respect,” says Earle, who was pictured on the cover of Time magazine last September as a woman who is changing the world. “If you want to be respected as a scientist, you have to act like a scientist. Have a good sense of humour – it always helps. And rather than trying to act like a man, just be yourself,” she says. “Be the best you can possibly be or what you are aspiring to be, whether [you want to be] a singer, a pilot, a scientist, or a mathematician.”

There has been tremendous progress in science since the 20th century, and the same applies to the status of women in society. “Things are changing. It happens as communication becomes more open, and we see how others live and see successful people from different ethnicities and backgrounds and of different gender,” she says.

Over the years, Sylvia Earle has witnessed how the oceans have been affected by human behaviour, such as overfishing, illegal dumping, plastic pollution and climate change.

Born in New Jersey, Earle developed an interest in nature when she was a child. She later moved to the west coast of Florida where she developed a passion for the sea.

“When I discovered the ocean, the things in the ocean that you don’t see anywhere else … I fell in love!” recalls Earle, who received a phycology doctorate from Duke University in 1966. “Of course, we’re all in this together … But the biggest parts of the world are the oceans – which we know the least about, and are likely the most important for the future of everything we care about.”

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Over the years, she has witnessed how the oceans are affected by human behaviour, such as overfishing, illegal dumping, plastic pollution and climate change. “I dived in the waters near Hong Kong in 1980. I haven’t been back recently. But we have more problems now than in 1980. Plastic pollution is everywhere, and people seem to think the oceans are the best places for discarding what they don’t want on land. The oceans have become great dumping sites,” she says.

Sylvia Earle believes that it’s not too late to reverse the damage humans have inflicted on the Earth.

“Eating fish that have been swimming in contaminated waters means that you get contaminated. We’re in a big circle. We put bad things into the oceans, they come right back to us.”


Earle believes that it’s not too late to reverse the damage humans have inflicted on the Earth. “Our success as a species has come about because we have learned things and we have passed that knowledge along. Each new generation has the chance to be better prepared than the one before,” she says.

“We [can make Earth healthy again] because we still have sharks, and there are still groupers and there are still tuna. We still have a chance if we stop killing so many of them and try to understand the value in protecting them – that’s where
hope lies.”


Area of Global Dead Zones Doubling Every 10 Years

The number and size of oceanic dead zones is increasing.

The name says it all, but dead zones are areas along the sea floor where oxygen levels are so low they no longer sustain marine life. Hypoxia, which is a deficiency in the amount of oxygen reaching the tissues of organisms, is a widespread and growing problem in Earth’s oceans as industrial waste, fertilizer runoff from industrial agriculture and anthropogenic climate disruption increasingly aggravate the crisis.

An international team of scientists, sponsored in part by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA’s) National Centers for Coastal Ocean Science has published one of the broadest studies to dateabout declining oxygen in the world’s oceans.

One of the co-authors of the study is Nancy Rabalais, a professor in the Department of Oceanography and Coastal Sciences at Louisiana State University (LSU).

Rabalais, who is also a distinguished research professor at LSU’s Marine Consortium, told Truthout the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico has, over the 31 years it has been measured, averaged 5,806 square miles in size.

“It remains the second-largest human-caused low oxygen area in global coastal waters,” said Rabalais, who discovered the Gulf dead zone and has been tracking it ever since. “In 2017, it was the largest ever measured: 8,776 square miles.”

Her and her colleagues’ research has also shown that there are now more than 400 coastal low-oxygen areas around the globe, and the number of dead zones started to double roughly every decade beginning in the 1960s.

A Growing Problem

Don Scavia, a professor emeritus of environment and sustainability at the University of Michigan, explained in detail what causes a dead zone.

“In the Gulf, as in most places where dead zones occur, the cause is excess nitrogen and/or phosphorus inputs coupled with a physical process called stratification,” Scavia, who was also NOAA’s chief scientist of the National Ocean Service and has authored over 200 papers in refereed journals, told Truthout. “The large nutrient inputs stimulate major blooms of algae that eventually settle into the deep waters.”

Furthermore, the decomposition of organic matter by bacteria uses oxygen, so physical stratification, which is caused by having warmer and/or fresher water layers to sit on top of colder and/or saltier layers, prevents atmospheric oxygen from replenishing the supply. Hence, the concentration of oxygen decreases throughout the summer until winter storms mix the water again.

This is why the excessive use of chemical fertilizers that contain phosphorous and nitrogen by the industrial agriculture sector are such a key factor in the creation of the massive dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

While pointing out that while there is year-to-year variability in size since measurements began, Scavia, who has written at length about the negative impacts, added that retrospective modeling work has indicated that the size of the Gulf of Mexico dead zone roughly tripled between the early 1970s and the 1980s.

The most recently published research on dead zones shows that there are five to six very large dead zones.

Matt Rota, the senior policy director at the environmental group Gulf Restoration Network in New Orleans, Louisiana, told Truthout he sees the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico being on an “upward trajectory,” and agrees with Rabalais about the 2017 measurement being the largest it ever recorded.

“The prediction for the 2018 dead zone shows that it might not be as big this year. But is still forecasted to be almost four times the size of the Hypoxia Task Force‘s goal, which should have been reached in 2015,” Rota told Truthout, referring to an EPA group monitoring the dead zone.

Rota also pointed to nitrogen and phosphorous pollution as fueling the dead zone, but included sewage treatment plants, other industrial facilities and animal feeding operations as well.

“The biggest contributor is the fertilizer that flows off the fields of corn and soybeans in the Midwest,” he added.

Jason Scorse, chair of the International Environmental Policy Program at the Middlebury Institute of International Studies at Monterey, where he is also the director of the Center for the Blue Economy, sees dead zones as existing exclusively due to two factors: “Agricultural subsidies, in which industrial agriculture companies are incentivized to produce over-fertilization, which is the heart of the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico,”  Scorse told Truthout. “The second is the bias in the overall food culture toward animal products, [which] magnifies all of this, since so much is going to meat production.”

Impacts on Marine Life

Scavia described how organisms unable to swim away from the dead zones — like worms and other animals that many fish feed on — will die.

“Fish that can swim will avoid the dead zone, but that often forces them into habitats that are less suitable for them, resulting in slower growth,” Scavia said. “Sometimes the fish (especially shrimp) are forced into more confined areas, making them more vulnerable to predators, including human fishing nets.”

Rabalais added that the ocean’s ability to recover from dead zones can take time. “Improvement of oxygen conditions following excess nutrient flux may take years to decades,” she said.

Rota pointed out how the commercial fishing industry in the Gulf of Mexico is impacted negatively by the dead zone. “This has impacts on some of the key prey species in the gulf, such as shrimp, crabs and Atlantic croaker,” he said, while adding that the only dead zone larger than that in the Gulf of Mexico is one in the Baltic Sea.

Scavia said we should be concerned that thousands of square miles of water on Earth have low oxygen levels. “These regions are basically ‘taken out of production,’ and if this amount of land was taken out of production, there would be significant concern,” he explained. “These dead zones also put some of our most important fisheries at risk.”

He said that while there has not been a clear demonstration of impact on the Gulf shrimp fisheries, for example, there are strong case histories showing that when you increase nutrient loads to a system, fisheries increase to a certain point before they crash. “It is hard to know when you are reaching that tipping point,” Scavia said. “So, it is wise to avoid it.”

Rabalais agreed, and added that there is the very real potential for fisheries that depend on healthy coastal waters (i.e. all fisheries) to collapse, with resultant economic losses to boot.

Rota pointed out other impacts. “Studies have shown a link between the Gulf dead zone and smaller shrimp sizes,” he said. “The dead zone can interrupt shrimp migration, and force shrimpers to have to travel farther to make their catch, costing them more in fuel and ice, their two biggest expenses.”

These increases in fuel and ice costs also mean more energy is expended in both cases, further contributing to fossil fuel emissions.

As for a solution, aside from the obvious need to work to mitigate climate disruption and a dramatic curtailment of industrial agriculture’s use of chemical fertilizers, Scavia pointed out that the dominant source of nutrients flowing into the Gulf come from the industrial row crop agriculture of the upper Midwest — “the corn belt.”

“While there has been a federal-state-tribal action plan in place since 2001 with the goal to reduce those loads and push the dead zone back to the size of the 1970s, very little reduction has taken place,” Scavia explained. “It has been difficult, both technically and politically, to reduce those loads from agriculture because the programs in place to do that are all voluntary and based on incentives, not regulation.”

Scorse believes that since governments providing subsidies for industrial agriculture companies are a global problem, there must be a global solution.

“Industrial agriculture subsidies and commodity crop subsidies should be abolished,” he concluded. “… if you got rid of the subsidies … the world [would move] to more of a plant-based food culture.”

Until real solutions are implemented, dead zones continue to spread.

In 2003, 146 dead zones were recorded around the world by the UN’s Global Environment Outlook Year Book. By 2009, it more than doubled to 407.

We May Be on the Verge of a Human-Made Climate Disaster

Is Europe about to experience famine?

Photo Credit: kwest / Shutterstock

New research shows that we may well be on the edge of a civilization-destroying climate change event. And we must do something about it.

Most Americans are at least vaguely familiar with the Irish Potato Famine of 1845, but few could tell you much at all about the much larger planet-wide famine of 1816. But Europeans can tell you all about the “Year Without a Summer,” because their news sometimes references it in the context of global climate change. It’s one of the deepest fears of many Europeans.

The reason a famine from 200 years ago spooks modern Europeans is because climate change could bring it back, only this time it would be long-lasting rather than just hanging on for one year. As such, it could throw Europe and parts of North America into prolonged famine, disease, depopulation, civil strife, and war… just as climate change has the Mideast in the past decades.

But first, to understand the Year Without a Summer and how it informs us about this new danger, step into the Wayback Machine.

In 1815, Mount Tambora in the Dutch East Indies erupted, throwing an enormous amount of ash into the upper atmosphere. As this layer of ash circled the globe, it cooled the planet—for the next year—by somewhere between .7° and 1.3° Fahrenheit.

That was enough to throw Europe into the worst famine of the entire 19th or 20th centuries.

As Wikipedia (and hundreds of other sources) notes:

“Cool temperatures and heavy rains resulted in failed harvests in Britain and Ireland. Families in Wales traveled long distances begging for food. Famine was prevalent in north and southwest Ireland, following the failure of wheat, oat, and potato harvests. In Germany, the crisis was severe; food prices rose sharply. With the cause of the problems unknown, people demonstrated in front of grain markets and bakeries, and later riots, arson, and looting took place in many European cities. It was the worst famine of 19th-century Europe.”

And this was just one single year of less than 1° Celsius of cooling.

Imagine if the cold never ended, but persisted decade after decade, and the cold was far greater than just a one-degree drop. Europe would experience widespread famine and massive political disruption.

Climate change disrupting entire civilizations is not merely hypothetical. Scientists (including political scientists) now know that over the past 30 years global warming pushed the desert south in Syria and other parts of the Middle East, displacing over a million farming families as their farms turned to dust and sand, setting up today’s Syrian Civil War (and conflicts from Egypt to Libya to Tunisia).

With just a few years of prolonged crop-unfriendly weather, Europe would be in even worse shape than Syria is today. Chaos, death, famine, and disease would rule the continent, while demand for food would trigger crises across the world.

But how can global warming provoke cooling in the eastern part of North America and across Europe?

The scenario was the plot basis (albeit wildly exaggerated) of the 2004 sci-fi film The Day After Tomorrow.

A deep ocean current sometimes called the Great Conveyor Belt (scientifically called the AMOC or Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation) brings warm South Pacific water down under the southern tip of Africa, and then up the east coast of South and North America (we call it the Gulf Stream) to western Europe. (Here’s a video from NASA.)

This river of water—larger in volume than all the land-based rivers in the world—delivers millions of tons of warm water a minute to an endpoint just south of Greenland and west of the UK, where, as much of the heat from that water is lifted into the atmosphere to blow east and warm Europe, the now-cool and saltiest-sea-water-in-the-world (it loses moisture along with heat) sinks deep down toward the ocean floor to begin its multi-year-long journey back toward the South Pacific.

Because this system is driven by both temperature and the sudden increase in salinity as it loses heat in the North Atlantic, its driving system is called thermohaline (temperature-salt).

The reason London and Amsterdam, at latitudes similar to Calgary and Edmonton, have weather like that of Europe is an Atlantic Ocean current driven by heat and salt.

US Global Change Research Program / Flickr

And because the UK, Germany, the Netherlands, Poland, and all of Northern Europe and Scandinavia are at roughly the same latitudes as the area from central Canada to Alaska, the only thing that keeps them warm enough to sustain rich crop yields (unlike Alaska) is the heat distributed to them from the Great Conveyor Belt/AMOC.

And the main thing that keeps the AMOC moving is the incredible salinity that forms in the North Atlantic as the current gives up both heat and water vapor, (leaving behind the salt) into the soon-to-warm-Europe air with the warmth. Because the strongly saline water is so much denser/heavier than normal seawater, it sinks vigorously toward the deeper parts of the ocean, pulling the rest of the current behind it and helping maintain the AMOC’s flow.

Should something begin to inject fresh water into that region, thus diluting the salinity of the AMOC there, it would reduce the density of that water column and thus could shut down the Conveyor Belt. And that would shut off Europe’s main heat source.

This is a scenario that most climate scientists—until this year—considered a remote possibility, even in the next century.

But it’s beginning to happen right now, both in Antarctica and off the coast of Greenland and Western Europe, because of massive glacier melts.

One part of the thermohaline circulation of the AMOC runs around Antarctica. And, because of global warming, Antarctica is shedding hundreds of billions of tons of ice-melt fresh water into the ocean every year—which is diluting and cooling saltwater and reducing local thermohaline circulation.

As Chris Mooney notes in the 4/3/18 Washington Post (“One Of The Most Worrisome Predictions About Climate Change May Be Coming True”):

“The new research, based on ocean measurements off the coast of East Antarctica, shows that melting Antarctic glaciers are indeed freshening the ocean around them. And this, in turn, is blocking a process in which cold and salty ocean water sinks below the sea surface in winter, forming ‘the densest water on the Earth’…”

Meanwhile, the northern part of the Great Conveyor Belt—which warms Europe—is also faltering in the North Atlantic, largely as a result of hundreds of billions of tons of cold, fresh water from Greenland glacier-melt, caused by global warming, pouring into it every few minutes.

New research from University College London and the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution (“Anomalously Weak Labrador Sea Convection and Atlantic Overturning”) found that the hiccups in the Great Conveyor Belt began around the time of the Industrial Revolution, when we—for the first time in millions of years of human evolution—started spewing billions of tons of fossil-fuel-derived carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. The Great Conveyor Belt has been deteriorating ever since, and the speed of its disintegration is now alarming observers worldwide.

Scientists are concerned that we may even be close to a tipping point, where this river of warm, salty water could change or collapse rapidly and with little warning—a change that probably would take tens of thousands of years to undo or reset.

As Dr. Michael Mann, one of the world’s most respected climate scientists and the founder of the “hockey stick” that Al Gore popularized, told me on my radio/TV program April 24th:

“This is a potential tipping point in the climate system, which is to say it could happen very abruptly once it starts to happen. The danger is that we’ve already seen a substantial slowdown in this ocean circulation pattern, [and that] suggests the possibility that we could be right up against that tipping point where it essentially just shuts down.”

Mann added that until the recent research came in, pretty much everybody thought we had 100 years or so before we needed to begin to even seriously consider this potentially catastrophic scenario:

“If you talked with climate modelers even 5 or 6 years ago, they would have told you that this scenario isn’t likely to play out for at least another century or so. … So something that we didn’t expect to happen for the better part of a century is happening already.”

And lest Americans think this will only be a European problem, shutting down the AMOC/Gulf Stream, which warms the American northeast, would also have a catastrophic impact on that region of the United States and Canada.

As NASA’s scientists note on one of the few climate-change web pages the Trumpies haven’t yet removed:

“Without the vast heat that these ocean currents deliver—comparable to the power generation of a million nuclear power plants—Europe’s average temperature would likely drop 5 to 10°C (9 to 18°F), and parts of eastern North America would be chilled somewhat less. Such a dip in temperature would be similar to global average temperatures toward the end of the last ice age roughly 20,000 years ago.”

Compare that to the damage a mere 1° C drop in the 1816 Year Without a Summer caused to both Europe and the eastern part of North America in 1816. Civilization—and billions of people—probably would simply no longer survive as we know it.

Like a long-term smoker who notices that he’s beginning to cough up blood, it’s long past the time we should have done something substantial and worldwide to wean off our addiction to fossil fuels. And as Republican politicians nationwide, supported in part by the Koch brothers’ mind-boggling fossil-fuel fortune, continue to deny even the basic science of climate change, things are deteriorating daily.

Given the stakes—the survival of much of the western world, and “civilization” as we know it—we all must step up and become political activists.

Note to Republicans and GOP donors: It’s no longer just your children and grandchildren whose lives you’re ruining in a distant future when you think you’ll be dead. If this happens as soon as it looks like it may, it will be you and your friends, too.

Thom Hartmann is a talk-show hostIndependent Media Institute writing fellow, and author of over 25 books in print. Two of Hartmann’s major books on climate change – The Last Hours of Ancient Sunlight and The Last Hours of Humanity – have been published in 17 languages on 5 continents. He also co-wrote and co-narrates the “Last Hours” documentary with Leonardo DiCaprio and Leila Connors.

Global Warming Has Made Gulf Stream Slowest in 1,600 Years, and That Could Impact Our Weather

By Sean Breslin  weather.com

At a Glance

  • A new study has found the Gulf Stream is circulating at its slowest rate in at least 1,600 years.
  • Climate change is to blame for the slowdown, the study also concluded.
  • If the circulation stops completely, it would have catastrophic impacts on our weather.

For years, scientists have studied a spot in the North Atlantic Ocean that has bucked the trend of a warming world. Now, they know what impact this colder-than-average region is having on the Gulf Stream.

According to a study published Wednesday in the journal Nature, the Gulf Stream is flowing at its slowest rate in at least 1,600 years, and climate change is the likely culprit. If this slowing trend continues, the researchers fear a shutdown of the Gulf Stream’s circulation is possible in the long-term, and that would have disastrous consequences, bringing rapid sea level rise to the East Coast, more extreme winters to Europe and numerous other side effects.

“We know somewhere out there is a tipping point where this current system is likely to break down,” study co-author Stefan Rahmstorf, a climate scientist at Germany’s Potsdam Institute for Climate Impact Research, told the Associated Press. “We still don’t know how far away or close to this tipping point we might be. … This is uncharted territory.”

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The slowdown is occurring with the Atlantic meridional overturning circulation (AMOC) in which warm, salty water flows northward, from the tropics toward the North Pole. From there, the water is cooled, sinks below warmer water and is carried southward along the Gulf Stream. But the slowdown means less water is turned over amid the Gulf Stream.

The AMOC has slowed 15 percent since the mid-20th century, the study also concluded.

Global warming is to blame for this slowdown in several ways, according to the study. One is that, despite being colder than the surrounding water, the ocean is simply warmer, and the cold water that’s supposed to sink under the warm water just isn’t as cold anymore. Also, melting sea ice is adding more fresh water to the mix, which makes it less dense and therefore less likely to sink.

“It’s a slow change at the moment, but we’re changing it,” Levke Caesar, a physicist at Potsdam Institute and a co-author of the study, told the AP. “One danger is in the unknown of what will happen. We should expect changes.”

The study was performed by Caesar, Rahmstorf and researchers from institutions in Germany, Greece, Spain and NOAA. The size of the cold zone studied measures about 2 million square miles, or about the size of India and Mexico combined, the AP also noted.

Some scientists who weren’t involved in the study agreed with the findings, but others said a lack of data left them skeptical of the study. MIT professor Carl Wunsch said the study’s “assertions of weakening are conceivable, but unsupported by any data” in an interview with the AP.

A separate study, also released Wednesday in the journal Nature, claims the 150-year slowdown of the AMOC is a result of natural changes, not man-made climate change. But both conclude the slowdown is occurring, and it could impact our weather in the coming years.

“If we do not rapidly stop global warming, we must expect a further long-term slowdown of the Atlantic overturning,” Alexander Robinson, a co-author of the second study, told the Guardian. “We are only beginning to understand the consequences of this unprecedented process – but they might be disruptive.”

The Ocean Is Losing Its Breath. Here’s the Global Scope.


In Broadest View Yet of World’s Low Oxygen, Scientists Reveal Dangers and Solutions

In the past 50 years, the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has gone up more than fourfold. In coastal water bodies, including estuaries and seas, low-oxygen sites have increased more than 10-fold since 1950. Scientists expect oxygen to continue dropping even outside these zones as Earth warms. To halt the decline, the world needs to rein in both climate change and nutrient pollution, an international team of scientists asserted in a new paper published Jan. 4 in Science.

“Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans,” said Denise Breitburg, lead author and marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center. “The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.”

The study came from a team of scientists from GO2NE (Global Ocean Oxygen Network), a new working group created in 2016 by the United Nation’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. The review paper is the first to take such a sweeping look at the causes, consequences and solutions to low oxygen worldwide, in both the open ocean and coastal waters. The article highlights the biggest dangers to the ocean and society, and what it will take to keep Earth’s waters healthy and productive.

Map of the world, with low oxygen zones in ocean (blue) and coasts (red)
Low-oxygen zones are spreading around the globe. Red dots mark places on the coast where oxygen has plummeted to 2 milligrams per liter or less, and blue areas mark zones with the same low-oxygen levels in the open ocean. (Credit: GO2NE working group. Data from World Ocean Atlas 2013 and provided by R. J. Diaz)

The Stakes

“Approximately half of the oxygen on Earth comes from the ocean,” said Vladimir Ryabinin, executive secretary of the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission that formed the GO2NE group. “However, combined effects of nutrient loading and climate change are greatly increasing the number and size of ‘dead zones’ in the open ocean and coastal waters, where oxygen is too low to support most marine life.”

Dead corals and crab shells
Low oxygen caused the death of these corals and others in Bocas del Toro, Panama. The dead crabs pictured also succumbed to the loss of dissolved oxygen.
(Credit: Arcadio Castillo/Smithsonian)

In areas traditionally called “dead zones,” like those in Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico, oxygen plummets to levels so low many animals suffocate and die. As fish avoid these zones, their habitats shrink and they become more vulnerable to predators or fishing. But the problem goes far beyond “dead zones,” the authors point out. Even smaller oxygen declines can stunt growth in animals, hinder reproduction and lead to disease or even death. Low oxygen also can trigger the release of dangerous chemicals such as nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas up to 300 times more powerful than carbon dioxide, and toxic hydrogen sulfide. While some animals can thrive in dead zones, overall biodiversity falls.

Climate change is the key culprit in the open ocean. Warming surface waters make it harder for oxygen to reach the ocean interior. Furthermore, as the ocean as a whole gets warmer, it holds less oxygen. In coastal waters, excess nutrient pollution from land creates algal blooms, which drain oxygen as they die and decompose. In an unfortunate twist, animals also need more oxygen in warmer waters, even as it is disappearing.

People’s livelihoods are also on the line, the scientists reported, especially in developing nations. Smaller, artisanal fisheries may be unable to relocate when low oxygen destroys their harvests or forces fish to move elsewhere. In the Philippines, fish kills in a single town’s aquaculture pens cost more than $10 million. Coral reefs, a key tourism attraction in many countries, also can waste away without enough oxygen.

“It’s a tremendous loss to all the support services that rely on recreation and tourism, hotels and restaurants and taxi drivers and everything else,” said Lisa Levin, a co-author and marine biologist with the University of California, San Diego. “The reverberations of unhealthy ecosystems in the ocean can be extensive.”

Some popular fisheries could benefit, at least in the short term. Nutrient pollution can stimulate production of food for fish. In addition, when fish are forced to crowd to escape low oxygen, they can become easier to catch. But in the long run, this could result in overfishing and damage to the economy.

GO2NE group selfie
Members of the GO2NE working group (Global Ocean Oxygen Network) in Monterey, Calif. Top row, from left: S.W.A. Naqvi, Moriaki Yasuhara, Kirsten Isensee, Véronique Garçon, Marilaure Grégoire, Michael Roman. Middle: Nancy Rabalais, Andreas Oschlies, Ivonne Montes, Denise Breitburg, Dimitri Gutiérrez, Maciej Telszewski, Denis Gilbert, Damodar Shenoy, Grant Pitcher. Bottom: Kenneth Rose, Gil Jacinto, Francisco Chavez, Karin Limburg, Lisa Levin. (Credit: Francisco Chavez)

Winning the War: A Three-Pronged Approach

To keep low oxygen in check, the scientists said the world needs to take on the issue from three angles:

Denise Breitburg samples with net in river
Lead author Denise Breitburg, a marine ecologist with the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center, is discovering how low oxygen can make life harder for fish and oysters in Chesapeake Bay.
(Credit: Tina Tennessen/SERC)
  • Address the causes: nutrient pollution and climate change. While neither issue is simple or easy, the steps needed to win can benefit people as well as the environment. Better septic systems and sanitation can protect human health and keep pollution out of the water. Cutting fossil fuel emissions not only cuts greenhouse gases and fights climate change, but also slashes dangerous air pollutants like mercury.
  • Protect vulnerable marine life. With some low oxygen unavoidable, it is crucial to protect at-risk fisheries from further stress. According to the GO2NE team, this could mean creating marine protected areas or no-catch zones in areas animals use to escape low oxygen, or switching to fish that are not as threatened by falling oxygen levels.
  • Improve low-oxygen tracking worldwide. Scientists have a decent grasp of how much oxygen the ocean could lose in the future, but they do not know exactly where those low-oxygen zones will be. Enhanced monitoring, especially in developing countries, and numerical models will help pinpoint which places are most at risk and determine the most effective solutions.

“This is a problem we can solve,” Breitburg said. “Halting climate change requires a global effort, but even local actions can help with nutrient-driven oxygen decline.” As proof Breitburg points to the ongoing recovery of Chesapeake Bay, where nitrogen pollution has dropped 24 percent since its peak thanks to better sewage treatment, better farming practices and successful laws like the Clean Air Act. While some low-oxygen zones persist, the area of the Chesapeake with zero oxygen has almost disappeared. “Tackling climate change may seem more daunting,” she added, “but doing it is critical for stemming the decline of oxygen in our oceans, and for nearly every aspect of life on our planet.”

Images are available after publication at the Smithsonian Newsdesk (http://newdesk.si.edu), and the abstract is available at http://science.sciencemag.org/content/359/6371/eaam7240. For a copy of the full paper, images or to speak with the authors, contact Kristen Minogue at (314) 605-4315 or minoguek@si.edu, or John Gibbons at (202) 633-5187 or gibbonsjp@si.edu.

The Smithsonian Environmental Research Center is the leading national research center for environmental issues in the coastal zone. Coastal zones are home to more than 70 percent of the world’s people, and the center’s scientists work to understand the connections between humans and the environment to help create a sustainable future. Its ecologists do research from the center’s Chesapeake Bay headquarters in Edgewater, Md., and in coasts around the world.

The Global Ocean Oxygen Network (GO2NE) is a scientific working group organized by the Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, part of the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO). Established in 2016, its scientists from around the world are committed to providing a global and multidisciplinary view of deoxygenation, advising policymakers on countering low oxygen and preserving marine resources.

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Oceans suffocating as huge dead zones quadruple since 1950, scientists warn


Areas starved of oxygen in open ocean and by coasts have soared in recent decades, risking dire consequences for marine life and humanity

A fisherman on a beach blanketed with dead sardines in Temuco, Chile. In coastal regions, pollution can cause algal blooms and when the algae decompose oxygen is sucked out of the water.
 A fisherman on a beach in Temuco, Chile that is blanketed with dead sardines, a result of algal blooms that suck oxygen out of the water. Photograph: Felix Marquez/AP

Ocean dead zones with zero oxygen have quadrupled in size since 1950, scientists have warned, while the number of very low oxygen sites near coasts have multiplied tenfold. Most sea creatures cannot survive in these zones and current trends would lead to mass extinction in the long run, risking dire consequences for the hundreds of millions of people who depend on the sea.

Climate change caused by fossil fuel burning is the cause of the large-scale deoxygenation, as warmer waters hold less oxygen. The coastal dead zones result from fertiliser and sewage running off the land and into the seas.

The analysis, published in the journal Science, is the first comprehensive analysis of the areas and states: “Major extinction events in Earth’s history have been associated with warm climates and oxygen-deficient oceans.” Denise Breitburg, at the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center in the US and who led the analysis, said: “Under the current trajectory that is where we would be headed. But the consequences to humans of staying on that trajectory are so dire that it is hard to imagine we would go quite that far down that path.”

“This is a problem we can solve,” Breitburg said. “Halting climate change requires a global effort, but even local actions can help with nutrient-driven oxygen decline.” She pointed to recoveries in Chesapeake Bay in the US and the Thames river in the UK, where better farm and sewage practices led to dead zones disappearing.

However, Prof Robert Diaz at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who reviewed the new study, said: “Right now, the increasing expansion of coastal dead zones and decline in open ocean oxygen are not priority problems for governments around the world. Unfortunately, it will take severe and persistent mortality of fisheries for the seriousness of low oxygen to be realised.”

The oceans feed more than 500 million people, especially in poorer nations, and provide jobs for 350 million people. But at least 500 dead zones have now been reported near coasts, up from fewer than 50 in 1950. Lack of monitoring in many regions means the true number may be much higher.

The open ocean has natural low oxygen areas, usually off the west coast of continents due to the way the rotation of the Earth affects ocean currents. But these dead zones have expanded dramatically, increasing by millions of square kilometres since 1950, roughly equivalent to the area of the European Union.


Furthermore, the level of oxygen in all ocean waters is falling, with 2% – 77bn tonnes – being lost since 1950. This can reduce growth, impair reproduction and increase disease, the scientists warn. One irony is that warmer waters not only hold less oxygen but also mean marine organisms have to breathe faster, using up oxygen more quickly.

There are also dangerous feedback mechanisms. Microbes that proliferate at very low oxygen levels produce lots of nitrous oxide, a greenhouse gas that is 300 times more potent than carbon dioxide.

In coastal regions, fertiliser, manure and sewage pollution cause algal blooms and when the algae decompose oxygen is sucked out of the water. However, in some places, the algae can lead to more food for fish and increase catches around the dead zones. This may not be sustainable though, said Breitburg: “There is a lot of concern that we are really changing the way these systems function and that the overall resilience of these systems may be reduced.”

The new analysis was produced by an international working group created in 2016 by Unesco’s Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission. The commission’s Kirsten Isensee said: “Ocean deoxygenation is taking place all over the world as a result of the human footprint, therefore we also need to address it globally.”

Lucia von Reusner, campaign director of the campaign group, Mighty Earth, which recently exposed a link between the dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico and large scale meat production, said: “These dead zones will continue to expand unless the major meat companies that dominate our global agricultural system start cleaning up their supply chains to keep pollution out of our waters.”

Diaz said the speed of ocean suffocation already seen was breathtaking: “No other variable of such ecological importance to coastal ecosystems has changed so drastically in such a short period of time from human activities as dissolved oxygen.”

He said the need for urgent action is best summarised by the motto of the American Lung Association: “If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”

Sardines congregate at Espiritu Santo, Mexico, on June 13, 2015. (Photo: Alejandro Prieto / Barcroft Imag / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)Sardines congregate at Espiritu Santo, Mexico, on June 13, 2015. (Photo: Alejandro Prieto / Barcroft Imag / Barcroft Media via Getty Images)

The recently published Biological Impacts of Ocean Acidification report is an eight-year-long study by more than 250 scientists investigating the impact of increasingly acidic oceans on sea life.

The chemistry of oceans has been changed by anthropogenic climate disruption (ACD), as the oceans absorb carbon dioxide humans are emitting into the atmosphere. Carbon dioxide produces carbonic acid, which lowers the pH of seawater.

To see more stories like this, visit “Planet or Profit?”

The study is a product of the BIOACID project, which is based in Germany.

The research shows that all sea life will be affected by the increasing acidification. Just one example: The numbers of baby cod that grow into full adulthood could fall anywhere from one-quarter to just one-twelfth of today’s numbers.

Twenty-Five Percent Increase in Ocean Acidity

The BIOACID project shows that since the dawn of the Industrial Revolution, the pH of the surface waters of Earth’s oceans has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1.

While this may sound like a miniscule amount of change, it is a stunning 26 percent increase in acidity.

Ulf Riebesell from the GEOMAR Helmholtz Centre for Ocean Research in Kiel, Germany is the lead author of the recently released study, and a global authority on the topic of ocean acidification. He explains that various species are affected differently by acidification — and those effects can have a rippling impact.

Riebesell told the BBC, “Warm-water corals are generally more sensitive [to acidification] than cold-water corals. Clams and snails are more sensitive than crustaceans.” He added that “even if an organism isn’t directly harmed by acidification it may be affected indirectly through changes in its habitat or changes in the food web.”

Given that more than one billion people rely on food from warm-water coral reefs alone, humans will obviously be impacted heavily as acidification progresses.

Sea life has been in trouble for a long time, due to overfishing, pollution and ACD impacts.

Global fish stocks are in decline, as 85 percent of them are either over-exploited, depleted, fully exploited or in recovery from exploitation.

Large areas of the seabed in the North Sea and the Mediterranean have long since resembled deserts, and 90 percent of all large fish are already gone from the oceans.

Acidification as a Kill Mechanism

The worst global mass extinction event thus far was the Permian Mass Extinction event that took place 252 million years ago.

That event wiped out more than 95 percent of all life on Earth. It was triggered by a dramatic increase of CO2 in the atmosphere, which was absorbed by the oceans, which subsequently acidified and acted as the primary kill mechanism for the event.

Another recently released study, “Thresholds of Catastrophe in the Earth System,” published in the prestigious journal Science Advances, showed that if humans continue to add CO2 to the atmosphere and oceans, a global mass extinction event could be triggered by 2100.

Many scientists believe we are already in the sixth mass extinction event, primarily triggered by human CO2 emissions. Several peer-reviewed scientific studies agree.

What happens in the sea during a solar eclipse?

On July 20th, 1963, three scientists sat on a research ship 200 miles south of Woods Hole, MA, waiting for something remarkable. They were nearly 4000m above the seafloor, and using sonar, they could ‘see’ a line of creatures resting in the deep. By this time, biologists were beginning to unravel the mystery of this ‘false bottom’–a layer in the ocean that looks the the sea floor on sonar but isn’t–which covered much of the ocean. This false bottom rises in up at night and sinks down during the day. This rising and falling is in fact caused by the largest migration of animal on Earth–everything from fish, shrimp and jellyfish, moving hundreds of meters in unison up and down each day. But how and why these animals rose in fell in the ocean wasn’t clear. As the scientists watched their instruments, the light began to fade. Not from the setting sun, but from something else.

The scientists were trying to answer a question that could be answered literally no other way. Some experts suggested that this massive migration was due to each animal’s own biological rhythm; the same rhythm that causes you to feel jet lag after a long trip. But others thought that the sun itself was driving this massive shift from shallow to deep and back again: as the sun set, animals saw the dimming light and rose to the surface. As the sun rose, they sank again into the deep. How could the scientists test between these two different hypotheses? They can’t exactly alter the sunrise…

Luckily, Earth’s view of the sun is altered once a year thanks to a cosmic twist–when the moon blocks it from view. A solar eclipse on land can be an eerie phenomenon. Nighttime crickets and frogs begin to sing, birds fall silent, even bees return to their hives. But until recently, what happened in the ocean depths was a mystery.

Back on the research ship in 1963, the moon moved into its place in front of the sun, daylight rapidly faded, and the scientists solved the migration mystery: the deep layer of animals began to rise. Bioluminescent creatures started to shine, and nocturnal creatures started a frantic upward thrust. As the world grew darker, they swam upward nearly 80 meters. But this frantic migration didn’t last long. As the moon receded and the sun revealed itself, the massive animal layer did an about-face, scrambling back into the safety of the darkness. One can only imagine the frenzy as millions upon millions of creatures clambered towards the surface and then, just as quickly, rushed back to the deep.

On the boat the scientists could only observe this massive movement with sonar. But it was enough to answer their question. Thanks to the solar eclipse, we now know that animals hiding in the deep are governed in part by the external ebb and flow of light from the sun.

Ancient humans considered eclipses ominous signs. Now, modern humans adopt a more spectator role in this celestial occurrence. There’s even a citizen scientist initiative to understand how creatures on land responds during the upcoming eclipse. But for millions of creatures living in the open ocean, a solar eclipse, at least for a short time, may really spell calamity.

Work cited

RH Backus, RC Clark, AS Wing. (1965) Behaviour of certain marine organisms during the solar eclipse of July 20, 1963. Nature. 4975. pp 989-991

Sea Shepherd Vessel Rammed By Fishing Boat in Panama

A Note from

Captain Paul Watson

         from Captain Paul Watson:
Forty years ago in August 1977, I established the Sea Shepherd Conservation Society. Today, thanks to supporters like you, we are an international movement. We have hundreds of dedicated volunteers that participate in ground campaigns all over the world, crew our ten ships on sea campaigns, and work to spread awareness about our organization in their local communities.

Our Neptune’s Navy is actively stopping poachers on the land and in the waters of Mexico, Liberia, Gabon, the Baltic, Panama, Galapagos, Australia, the Mediterranean, the Caribbean, the Southern Ocean, and the North Atlantic. Our organization is saving lives and upholding international conservation law. Our important work is only possible because of our supporters – individuals who care about biodiversity in the sea and the protection of our oceans.
I’d like to extend my deepest thanks to you for your generosity in supporting our life-saving efforts. As you know, if the oceans die, we all die. I am thankful that you are helping us save the oceans and the wildlife that call the oceans home.
For the Oceans,



The M/V John Paul DeJoria suffered minor damage while patrolling a marine reserve 

John Paul DeJoria rammedJohn Paul DeJoria rammed by angry fishermenCOIBA, PANAMA – June 29, 2017 – A Sea Shepherd vessel suffered minor damage on Wednesday when it was rammed by a fishing boat while patrolling in the Coiba marine reserve, off the Pacific coast of Panama.

While monitoring and documenting fishing boats engaged in long-line fishing inside the reserve, the anti-poaching group’s cutter, the M/V John Paul DeJoria, was surrounded by five fishing boats at around 3pm.

According to the crew, the fishermen threatened the non-profit marine protection group by throwing items at John Paul DeJoria, while gesturing and shouting aggressively.

Then, the 110-foot Island class patrol boat was rammed by one of the five boats and suffered minor damage.

The Sea Shepherd crew tried to contact a nearby Panamanian Aero naval vessel by radio for assistance but were unable to reach it. The crew stood its ground and refused to be intimidated, and reported the incident and boats to Coiba park rangers.

The entire incident lasted about 60 to 90 minutes and ended when the John Paul DeJoria departed the area to avoid the situation escalating. The Sea Shepherd crew showed total restraint and did not provoke or retaliate in any way.

“It’s high time the Panamanian authorities made this incredibly important marine area a reserve not only by name but also in practice,” said John Paul DeJoria Captain Jessie Treverton. “This area needs to be a zero take zone and properly policed.  Sea Shepherd is offering to provide the M/V John Paul Dejoria, resources, and crew to assist the rangers in their important work.”

Added Sea Shepherd Founder, President and CEO Captain Paul Watson: “Sea Shepherd crews are not intimidated by intimidation, threats of violence and assaults. I am proud of the crew of the John Paul DeJoria for standing strong in the face of these poachers in their defense of the Coiba Island marine reserve.”

Coiba National Park is a UNESCO World Heritage site that comprises of 430,825 acres. It is surrounded by one of the largest coral reef system on the Pacific Coast and is home to numerous species of sharks, whales, sea turtle and rays among numerous others. This makes the area a prized spot for tourists and scuba divers, while also attracting poachers and fishermen engaged in illegal fishing activity.

The John Paul DeJoria is currently stationed in the Eastern Tropical Pacific for its shark protection campaign, Operation Treasured Islands.

Operation Treasured Islands
Visit our 
Operation Treasured Islands
site for more information.

Environmentalists urge Astoria to oppose oil terminal


By Katie FrankowiczThe Daily Astorian

Published on July 4, 2017 8:28AM

Environmentalists want the Astoria City Council to oppose an oil-by-train terminal at the Port of Vancouver.


Environmentalists want the Astoria City Council to oppose an oil-by-train terminal at the Port of Vancouver.

Local and regional environmental groups asked the Astoria City Council Monday night to join with other Pacific Northwest cities to oppose an oil terminal they say threatens the health of the Columbia River estuary.

The Tesoro Savage oil-by-rail terminal at Washington’s Port of Vancouver, first announced in 2013, would be the largest oil-by-rail project in North America. Five mile-and-a-half long trains would carry a daily output of 360,000 barrels of crude oil. The oil would be put on oil tankers that would then cross the Columbia River Bar, according to nonprofit environmental group Columbia Riverkeeper.

The project could “dramatically increase” the danger of an oil spill on the Columbia River from trains coming into the terminal and the vessels going downstream, said Dan Serres, the group’s conservation director.

The City Council had opposed a liquefied natural gas and pipeline project in Warrenton in 2015, Serres said. He spoke Monday seeking a similar resolution, this time for the oil-by-rail project.

“That statement (in 2015) resonated statewide,” Serres said. “… It marked this area as being a place where people like to help the river.”

Vancouver, Spokane, Portland and Hood River have already spoken out against the project. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee will make the final decision on whether to approve or deny the project, a decision he is expected to make sometime late this year or next year.

Of chief concern to Serres and others opposed to the project are the trains themselves.

“This is a new thing for the United States,” Serres said. “We haven’t moved oil by train in this volume ever before. In 2012, this started to ramp up. In 2013 we started to see trains derail.”

He pointed to an oil train that derailed and caught fire in Mosier, a town in the Columbia River Gorge, last year. That derailment and the small oil spill in the river that resulted was a “taste” of what could happen elsewhere, he said.

Jan Mitchell, who serves on the Astoria Planning Commission, urged the council to join the other cities in opposing the project.

“Anything that happens to the river upstream, happens to us,” she said.

City councilors asked questions and expressed concern over the safety issues, but Councilor Bruce Jones, a retired U.S. Coast Guard commander, pointed out that refined petroleum products move up and down the river at least five days a week, if not on a daily basis.

There are products the Pacific Northwest requires for its economy and industry to function, he said. If these products weren’t being moved on the river, they would be in trucks on the highways.

“I think it’s a complex issue,” he said. “Petroleum products moving on the river, it’s easy to say this is real black and white, it’s bad. But then again compared to the alternatives, it moves safely on the river now.”

The tankers that carry petroleum products or other hazardous chemicals must pass stringent regulations. When Jones was captain of the port, he said he was more worried about an oil spill from a grain ship than from a petroleum tanker. They carry massive amounts of fuel and are not maintained to the same standards required of the petroleum tankers.

“The grain business, they operate on very small margins,” Jones said, “… so some of those grain ships sitting out there are real pieces of work.”

The river is a highway, Jones said. “It’s a place of beauty and natural resources and fish and sea lions and it’s also a highway and it has been ever since before the first white people came here. It was a commercial highway.”

He said he respects the work Columbia Riverkeeper does to protect the environmental health of the river. He wants to look closely at the project’s environmental impact statement, current safety regulations related to oil tankers, and talk to the bar pilots who would be tasked with guiding these tankers back and forth across the dangerous system of sandbars at the Columbia River’s mouth before giving his approval to a resolution opposing the oil-by-rail terminal project.

City staff will work with Serres to craft a resolution to bring before the City Council in August.