As we continue to cut down forests and burn fossil fuels, we as a society are contributing to our destruction through the increased levels of carbon dioxide emissions in the atmosphere. While we observe today’s political climate we see a constant divide on whether climate change is real or not, but as we look at the world around us, it is impossible to not notice its effects. Corals reefs are bleaching and losing their biodiversity as our oceans become more acidic. Coral bleaching is also greatly linked with air circulation effects such as El Niño, which causes drastic changes in both temperature and weather all over the world. As we explore these aspects of climate change, we see the need for our government to take action to help reduce human impact on our environment. If we do not stop the increased CO2 in our atmosphere soon, then we are bound to face serious environmental impacts that will end our existence.
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Since the Industrial Revolution, CO2 emissions have greatly increased in our atmosphere. CO2 is one of the gases that contributes to the greenhouse effect, which is a warming in the atmosphere that results from trapped heat radiating from Earth towards space (Climate 2019). Carbon dioxide is released through natural means such as respiration and volcanic eruptions, but we as humans contribute to its increase through by constantly burning fossil fuels, cutting down trees and forests, and through simple means such as driving our cars (Climate 2019). We continue to drive our cars and rely on fossil fuels without realizing how detrimental that is to our environment. It has been proven that there is a constant relationship between fossil-fuel burning and CO emissions in the air, yet we as a society are moving very slowly towards sustainable energy methods (Climate 2016). We as humans play a big role in ensuring that our atmosphere does not reach a point where it is no longer possible to save it. Figure 1 depicts the CO2 level emissions from over 400,000 years ago to 2016 and we can see that we are now at a current level that exceeds the 1950 level of 300 ppm (Climate 2016). For centuries, we have stayed below that line but we are now facing a serious issue. We have reached 400 ppm and if we continue at this rate then we will exhaust all the resources our beautiful planet has to offer.
Figure 1. CO2 emission levels provided by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
As we see CO2 emissions increase in our atmosphere it is important to recall that around half of those emissions end up in our beautiful oceans (Kennedy 2010). Once CO2 enters the water it begins to make the ocean more acidic since it lowers the pH balance. Acidic water corrodes minerals in the water and therefore greatly affects the survival of many marine species. Many marine species use those minerals to build their protective shells and skeletons, but if those minerals cease to exist so will these animals since they lack the ability to protect themselves (Kennedy 2010). If these marine animals are still able to build their shells in acidic water, it is now going to take them twice as much energy to do so and it takes time away from doing other things such as reproducing or simply trying to stay alive (The Ocean Portal Team). While some creatures are able to adapt to the changes in the pH balance, other creatures may suffer and ultimately become extinct. The Ocean Portal Team says,
“We can’t know this for sure, but during the last great acidification event 55 million years ago, there were mass extinctions in some species including deep-sea invertebrates.”
Animals with protective shells such as mussels, clams, starfish, and urchins are going to face serious damage since they are going to have trouble building their shells. Fish can also face serious damage because the CO2 emissions will enter their bloodstream and essentially alter the way their body works (The Ocean Portal Team). For example, the fish will take more energy to release the CO2 from their body and this can take away from their other resources such as reproducing, swimming away from predators, digesting food, and even growth (The Ocean Portal Team). We need to take action now to save our oceans. Figure 2 depicts three models: (left) present-day ocean pH, (middle) one in which we greatly reduce CO2 emissions and (right) one in which we do nothing. We can accomplish living in a world that resembles the map in the middle if we simply take necessary measures to limit the temperature increase to 2°C during this century. If we go above a 2°C, then we will begin to see very dangerous human impacts on our climate, worse than what we have already seen (Kennedy 2010).
Figure 2. These maps depict CO2 emission levels for present-day and 2100. Provided by British researchers that collaborated through the AVOID Programme.
Another big impact of ocean acidification is coral bleaching and air circulation. Coral reefs provide a tremendous amount of biodiversity due to the large variation in plant and animal species. They also provide a wide variety of ecosystem services such as food, habitat for fishes, sand for beaches, and protection from storms and waves (Scott & Lindsey 2018). Unfortunately, their exposure to high temperatures and warm water over an unusual period of time, as well as runoff and pollution, causes the corals to face bleaching. When corals are stressed by changes in these conditions such as temperature or nutrients they eventually begin to turn white (Scott & Lindsey 2018). Historically, coral bleaching has been associated with El Niño, which is a warming of ocean surface water in the Pacific region. One of the consequences of El Niño is increased rainfall in the southern tier of the United States and in Peru. This results in destructive flooding and drought in the West Pacific (Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory). We see the first mass coral bleaching during El Niño in 1983, and the first global coral bleaching event during El Niño of 1998 (L’Heureux 2014). The reefs were stressed again during El Niño in 2010. During the years 2014-2017, there was another massive coral bleaching event, but this one was unusual since it was not entirely due to El Niño. The effects of El Niño started taking place during 2015, yet there was already a huge amount of stress within the corals. In 2016, another strong El Niño arrived and this caused huge heat stress that affected 51% of the world’s coral reefs (L’Heureux 2014). These incidents were drastic because many reefs experienced their worst bleaching ever documented and others in the South Pacific lost upwards of 98% of their corals. From these results over 75% of the world’s corals reefs experienced bleaching (L’Heureux 2014). Figure 3 depicts coral bleaching in 2015 (top) and 2016 (bottom). Through this figure, we can see how crucial it is for us to lower CO2 emissions and to take action towards protecting our planet. We are destroying our atmosphere and our ocean and if we can continue at this rate, there will be very little for us to enjoy in the world. All our fishes and corals will be dead and eventually so will we if we do not try to save the world we live in.
Figure 3. Coral bleaching in 2015 and 2016. Provided by the NOAA Coral ReefWatch.
As we continue burning fossil fuels and cutting down forests, it is important to note all the negative effects our actions play in the environment. We as humans alone have greatly impacted our environment and if we do not take action now, then we will not live to see how this all ends. If we want to ensure our planet lives on for many more years, then we need to find ways to be more sustainable. Next time you drive your car or throw garbage onto the street, think about your actions. We need to take action now and we need the support of our government to ensure our goals are met. We need to move towards a more sustainable environment, one where people are conscious of their actions and work towards making the world a safe and clean place to live in.
- “Climate Change Causes: A Blanket around the Earth.” NASA, NASA, 5 Feb. 2019, climate.nasa.gov/causes/.
- “Graphic: The Relentless Rise of Carbon Dioxide – Climate Change: Vital Signs of the Planet.” NASA, NASA, 8 Nov. 2016, climate.nasa.gov/climate_resources/24/graphic-the-relentless-rise-of-carbon-dioxide/.
- Kennedy, Caitlyn. “Ocean Acidification, Today and in the Future.” Ocean Acidification, Today and in the Future | NOAA Climate.gov, 3 Nov. 2010, www.climate.gov/news-features/featured-images/ocean-acidification-today-and-future.
- Scott, Michon, and Rebecca Lindsey. “Unprecedented 3 Years of Global Coral Bleaching, 2014–2017.” Unprecedented 3 Years of Global Coral Bleaching, 2014–2017 | NOAA Climate.gov, 1 Aug. 2018, www.climate.gov/news-features/understanding-climate/unprecedented-3-years-global-coral-bleaching-2014–2017.
- L’Heureux, Michelle. “What Is the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in a Nutshell?” What Is the El Niño–Southern Oscillation (ENSO) in a Nutshell? | NOAA Climate.gov, 5 May 2014, www.climate.gov/news-features/blogs/enso/what-el-niño–southern-oscillation-enso-nutshell.
- “What Is El Niño?” What Is El Niño? | El Nino Theme Page – A Comprehensive Resource, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Pacific Marine Environmental Laboratory, www.pmel.noaa.gov/elnino/what-is-el-nino.
- “Ocean Acidification.” Smithsonian Ocean, The Ocean Portal Team, 18 Dec. 2018, ocean.si.edu/ocean-life/invertebrates/ocean-acidification.
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