What is Climate Change? What is happening? And what can you do?
We hear about climate change, plastic pollution, over-fishing and many other challenges. Many things are happening, and they are all interconnected. But what is actually happening? What is Climate Change? Why does it matter for the ocean? And for us?
Local fishermen have trouble catching, corals don’t look as colourful as they used to, and waters aren’t as clear. For the last ten years, I have travelled the world, visiting every continent and sailing on every ocean (except Antarctica). I have walked on remote beaches on islands hundreds of miles from any mainland. I explore the bottom of the sea whenever I can. I’ve explored below the surface in Tonga in the middle of the South Pacific, in the Galapagos, the Mediterranean, East Africa, Australia and the Caribbean. Everywhere I get confronted with the same: man-made situations to the detriment of the ocean. Plastic is everywhere, coral reefs are bleaching, fishing lines discarded, and endangered fish are on the menu and in the supermarket. We are destroying our planet, and we don’t realise it. Most of us only see coastlines and water surface, but when you are out, on, or underneath the ocean, you are constantly confronted with the damage we collectively are making.
I am not a scientist, but I explore, observe and learn every day. My ocean explorations have shown me the tsunami of challenges our oceans are facing. My nephew is almost two now. I’m curious about what the ocean will be like when he starts snorkelling, and once he has kids. Experience and understanding are keys to action. In this post, I address what is Climate Change to help you understand what’s going on and what you can do to act.
A brief intro on Climate Change
2016 has been recorded as the hottest year in human history. Since 2001 we have had 16 of the 17 warmest years recorded (1). A few degrees’ change may not seem like much, but when we take the average on earth, things change. We can already see the changes happening: wildfires, droughts, extreme rainfall, super-hot days, super cold days, and tropical storm development outside ‘the season.’ Weather patterns have never changed at such a rapid pace as we see today. It’s called Climate Change. And it’s not a distant reality anymore.
It’s hard to get a grasp on what is climate change since for most of us, it doesn’t directly affect us much (yet!). Yet, islanders, farmers, and fisherman have already experienced the consequences first-hand. When I was a kid, building snowmen and ice skating were guaranteed in winter in The Netherlands. Now we walk around in a T-shirt at Christmas time. While I’m typing this in Grenada, in the Caribbean the biggest storm surge is taking the coastline away. Locals have never seen the water reach this level before! In Tonga, the locals told me they already have had islands disappearing. The North-West passage, which used to be the most challenging passage where ships got stuck with the ice around them, is even opening up as a cruising ground.
How does climate change happen?
The atmosphere plays a fundamental role in the regulation of the climate. During the day, our planet warms up in the sunlight. At night, it cools, and the heat absorbed during the day goes back into the atmosphere. Some of the heat goes into space, but some of the heat is trapped by so called ‘greenhouse gases’, which includes Carbon Dioxide (CO2) and Methane, in the atmosphere. This has provided our planet with a consistent temperature and has made life on earth possible.
By nature, our planet produces and processes CO2. Plants, above and below the surface, take in CO2, and convert it into Oxygen. Animals, including us humans, breathe in the oxygen and breathe out carbon dioxide to live and thrive. What is now happening is that too much greenhouse gases (like CO2) are released into the air. More gases are trapped, and earth becomes warmer and warmer. We’re messing with the balance by adding more CO2 (by burning fossils fuels like oil, coal and gas) and removing what the planet needs to absorb CO2 (trees, seagrass, phytoplankton). It’s a double-edged sword! It makes it difficult for marine life, but also for us humans to adapt.
The changes in nature are not happening as a cycle of nature. They are man-made. We drive cars, browse the internet, eat meat, take airplanes, make babies, and use all sorts of products coming from the factories burning fossil fuels like there’s no tomorrow. We burn fossil fuels to create energy to make things, eat things, and move ourselves around. The biggest CO2 emissions come from agriculture and deforestation (2). Waste products from the creation process include carbon dioxide (CO2) and methane (another gas). Some of it is seen, like that exhaust you see when driving by a factory, but some of it is unseen.
Why is climate change a problem for the ocean and for us?
As long as CO2 levels continue to increase, so will the temperature. Sea ice and glaciers are melting around the world, causing sea levels to rise. As the oceans become warmer, the water expands, making the sea levels rise even faster. Less ice also means warmer oceans since less sunlight is reflected back into the atmosphere. With warming oceans, there is less circulation of warm and cold water, bringing fewer nutrients to the surface for plankton to eat. With Phytoplankton being of huge importance for absorbing carbon and producing oxygen, sea temperature rise disrupts this process. Some fish species are already going deeper. Fish and plankton move toward the poles for colder water with more nutrition near the sunny surface where they thrive the best.
Not only the temperature upsets the balance. When the ocean absorbs CO2 from the atmosphere, a chemical reaction occurs that makes the water more acidic. This process is called Ocean Acidification. For millions of years, the acidity level in the oceans has been stable. This steady pH balance (a numeric indicator of alkalinity or acidity) created a rich and flourishing marine life. Now, with our demand for fossil fuels and accordingly more CO2 out there, we have managed to change the pH in the ocean.
Warming and acidity of the ocean affect reefs, marine life, shellfish and Phytoplankton. If it gets out of balance to the point where Phytoplankton can’t survive, then other fish further up in the food chain can’t either. Plankton has already decreased by 40% over the last 50 years (3).
How much CO2 can our earth deal with?
At present rates, carbon dioxide is expected to reach 500ppm (parts per million) by 2050. The last time CO2 levels were this high, humans did not exist. Scientists say that CO2 levels this high would cause extreme weather changes that would endanger food supply, cause major mass migrations, species of plankton will be wiped out, and forests will be destroyed through droughts and fires (4).
To better understand the problem of CO2 in our oceans, let’s compare it with the carbon cycle in our bodies. It kind of works the same. We breathe in oxygen to convert nutrients into energy. A waste by-product of this process is CO2, which our lungs normally breath out. The more CO2 in the blood, the more acidic the blood is. As humans, we can also only tolerate so much CO2. If our blood pH levels become too acidic, because of consuming too many acidic foods and drinks like coffee, alcohol, tea or meat, this can lead to disease. We can balance it by eating alkaline fruits and veggies to stay healthy.
With freediving (breath hold diving), I don’t want to reach the surface because I need more oxygen. Rather, I need to go to the surface because my body gets sensitive to the acidic pH of my blood and needs to release CO2! What if it cannot go anywhere? It will disturb the functions in every cell of my body.
Minimising the stress on our bodies with pure foods and proper breathing keeps us healthy. The same must be done to keep our oceans healthy. We must minimise the acidic load on the lungs of our planet, the oceans, and keep the oceans in balance to neutralise the acids. In the oceans however, we’re not balancing it, this results in diminishing the health of the ocean. What if the CO2 in the atmosphere cannot go anywhere? It will disturb functions of life in every layer of the ecosystem.
I hope this post has helped to understand what is climate change and why it’s so important. We need to proactively tackle climate change, now! Shifting away from fossil fuels, adopting to simpler and less polluting lifestyles, and renewable energy sources like wind, sun, tides and certain biofuels (not all!) are critical in order to avoid climate change getting worse. It’s really urgent!
So what can you do?
This blogpost on what is Climate Change is a snippet from the book Ocean Nomad: How to travel across the Atlantic by Sailboat. By experiencing the ocean first hand on a boat, you will be amazed by its beauty, gain a deep respect for its power, and also see its decline. Learn how to hitchhike on a sailboat and explore the ocean first hand, why the ocean is so important, which challenges we’re facing and above all how you can make a difference for a healthier ocean in book Ocean Nomad.
- NASA. NOAA Data Show 2016 Warmest Year on Record Globally. National Aeronautics and Space Administration Goddard Institute for Space Studies. 2017. https://www.giss.nasa.gov/research/news/20170118/.
- IPCC (Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change). Climate Change 2014: Mitigation of Climate Change. Contribution of Working Group III to the Fifth Assessment. New York : Cambridge University Press., 2014.
- Global phytoplankton decline over the past century. Boyce, D. G., Lewis, M.R. & Worm, B. 2010, Nature, Vol. 466, pp. 591–596.
- Spratt, D. What would 3 degrees mean? 2010.
- Oppenlander, Richard. Biodiversity and Food Choice: A Clarification. C fortably Unaware. 2012. http://comfortablyunaware.com/blog/ biodiversity-and-food-choice-a-clarification/
- Jusková, I. Thesis Study. What’s in your carbon foodprint? Isabela Jusko. 2017. http://www.isabellajusko.ca/thesis#0.
- Cowspiracy. The Facts. [Online] http://www.cowspiracy.com/facts/. Everaert, C. (Executive producer), Soeters, K., & Zwanikken, G. (Directors).
- Meat the truth [Documentary]. Alalena Media Productions., 2008.