I am sitting in the middle of Bismark sea off the coast of Papua New Guinea eating my breakfast. To my left at the breakfast table is Charlie Veron, one of the world’s most preeminent scientists on extinction.
We are on our way to see some ocean vents where pure carbon dioxide is leaking from the ocean floor — a reminder that we are sitting on the edge of a ring of fire, one of the most active volcanic areas of the world.
It is always true that the future is here for us to see. We only have to look for it. And this is true today.
It is a scientific fact that the oceans are acidifying at an alarming rate and the impact of this will be profound. By looking at ocean vents and seeing what happens to the coral around them we have a crystal ball on the future. The acidity around ocean vents mimics what will happen to all reefs if the current rate of acidification continues. And the ocean is where life began and is the canary in the coalmine for mass extinctions. Charlie’s work has shown that the last four mass extinctions on earth are linked to changes that preceded them in the oceans. By examining the history of oceans we know how mass extinctions occurred and how evolution proceeded. Moreover we can get clues from he past as to how the earth will evolve beyond.
He paints a picture of reefs covered in algae, of molluscs — which are one-third of all biomass in the poles — unable to grow their shells, of monoculture coral reefs and lot’s of seagrass everywhere. Not to mention, huge proliferation of jellyfish. He says that we are sitting on top of the “headwaters of biodiversity” — from here life flows to the Indian Ocean, the Pacific, the north and south. It is from here that life extinct in one part of the world can be regenerated and flow from here to the rest of the world.
This might all sound like science fiction but it is actually good objective science. Here are the facts. The concentration of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere is higher today than it has been for the last million years. The oceans absorb a large part of the carbon dioxide we generate and most of this occurs in colder water. Just think of how the carbon dioxide in your soft drink bubbles off at higher temperatures. This causes ocean acidification and already has resulted in a 30% scientifically measured increase since the start of the industrial revolution. Katharina Fabricius, who is sitting to my right, a world expert on ocean acidification, is going to show us today how CO2 bubbling through coral actually eats away at the skeleton of entire reefs. She has a bunch of bottles covering the breakfast table and we are going to fill them with samples taken from the area around these vents. There are also tiles, which will be left here to collect coral growth and to compare it to reefs close by where there is no carbon bubbling out of the earth.
Up until now scientists have been bringing samples to their labs and testing their response to CO2. Today the organisms will be tested in their own habitat. The indigenous elders say that they remember the vents bubbling when they were young children. So, we know that coral in this area has been exposed to CO2 for at least 70 years and this provides researchers with a way of testing their hypotheses over long periods.
The way coral works is that branching coral grows faster than massive coral but is more sensitive to environmental changes. Very few coral species can handle the growing acidity. There is one species that does, Porites coral, and it will be the winner — hence we can expect coral monoculture when the oceans get more acidic as has happened before. And because this species does not provide a good home for other marine life, we will see it disappear.
We will see very healthy seagrass with nothing growing on it — looking like a beautiful golf course in the middle of the ocean. Sea grass will be one of the winning organisms like the Porites coral. The moral of the story is that this is happening and there will be winners and losers — more losers than winners.
Peeking 50 years into the future, at our current rate of burning of fossil fuels, we see extinction of many species, a few sites in the world where diversity of coral will be preserved. We see a world of vastly reduced biodiversity and man’s role in all of this will be uncertain. We are truly gobbling up our children’s world at an alarming rate.
These scientists are adamant. Once our atmosphere and oceans are acidified there is no way to reverse it, except over millennia.
We need to do what we can to stop it now.
Author — Ron Dembo,
Milne Bay, Papua New Guinea,
December 2, 2011