Previous Coasts and Ocean Observers
While many of us have begun to swap our summer wardrobe for winter wear and prepare for the holiday season, world leaders have had their hands full this week as they congregated in sunny Sharm el-Sheik, Egypt, for the climate change summit known as COP27. It is critical that world leaders make the commitments necessary to mitigate the climate crisis before it’s too late. Just a glance at the news from the world of water in this issue of RCC Coasts and Ocean Observer shows why.
In just the last few weeks, Florida has borne the brunt of natural disasters while increasing sea level rise contributes to billions in extra damage during hurricanes. In the Gulf of Mexico, coral reefs there are in danger as ocean temperatures continue to climb. And, as far away as the Arctic, scientists have begun to worry about ocean acidification and how it could affect the rapidly changing top of the world. Another critical concern is plastic pollution. Recently, researchers found that whales ingest millions of microplastic particles a day. Activists in Egypt collected debris from the Nile and created a 33-foot-high sculpture to draw attention to this escalating problem. Something also worth noting is that Coca-Cola is one of the sponsors of COP27 this year which has angered activists. In 2021, Coca-Cola was named the world’s leading polluter of plastics in and has increased its use of new plastics since 2019 by 3 percent to 3.2 million tons.
As autumn leaves show their colors and we prepare to set our clocks back an hour after the end of October, we may feel nostalgic for the wonders of fall: Halloween costumes, jumping into leaf piles, enjoying a warm, spiced latte, the excitement of a new school year for younger folks, and, of course, the gorgeous scenery. But this time of year doesn’t bring reprieve for those still in the throes of the Atlantic hurricane season, which doesn’t officially conclude until November 30th. In recent years, fierce storms have occurred through the season’s final eight weeks and 2022 shows no signs of stopping early. This issue of the RCC Observer shows the widespread effects and differing responses to Hurricane Ian along the East Coast and the need for dramatic change in how the United States prepares for and deals with such climate-fueled disasters.
Typically, marginalized populations—including communities of color, disabled people, low-income communities, and those experiencing homelessness—are more susceptible to the worst effects of tropical storms and hurricanes. While natural disasters do not discriminate against the type of person in their path, the response to these catastrophes definitely does. According to the New York Times, research shows that FEMA, the government agency responsible for helping Americans recover from disasters, often aids white disaster victims more than victims of color facing comparable damage. Puerto Ricans are still dealing with the aftermath of Hurricane Maria and were ill equipped to withstand the intense flooding and infrastructure damage wrought by Hurricane Ian. Many residents faced uncertainty over food, water, and shelter post Ian. This has happened time and time again and Puerto Ricans are left asking, what about us?
It had been a quiet summer for hurricanes on the Atlantic Coast. A suspiciously peaceful first half of hurricane season (which spans in entirety from June through November) boasted the first August in 25 years without a named storm in the Atlantic Ocean. Equally surprising, no hurricanes have yet to make landfall in the continental United States. The peace is not cause for relief, however. When it comes to this year’s hurricane season, it’s in like a lamb, out like a lion. As this September Observer goes to press, hurricane Fiona has just hit Puerto Rico — which suffered mightily with hurricane Maria — causing massive damage and flooding.
Growing up in Florida means that I am quite familiar with hurricanes. I vividly remember my father putting up the shutters of my childhood home for hurricane Katrina. Every summer after that, the anxiety of hurricane season loomed. Luckily, the casualties of every hurricane I have experienced have been mild, something not many Louisiana residents can say. Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans 17 years ago. More than 1,800 people lost their lives, and many survivors are still dealing with the trauma of evacuation, relocation, and loss. A new documentary by filmmaker Edward Buckles Jr. touches on the forgotten children of Katrina. You can watch Katrina Babies on HBO Max. The devastation of Puerto Rico and its aftermath has also been extensively documented as in the nine films presented at the 2018 International Puerto Rican Heritage Film Festival at Hunter College.
As someone who grew up a short drive from the beach in Miami, July is synonymous with sandy car seats, thick layers of sun block, and fresh mango in the cooler. As the summer sun beams brightly and temperatures begin to soar, the urge to be near the coast is impossible to ignore. This summer, millions of people will flock to the beach and marvel at the rolling waves and burnt orange sunsets. In these moments, the ocean seems infinite; but, we must not take it for granted. Just a few weeks ago, the United Nations Secretary General António Guterres declared an ocean emergency at the UN Oceans Conference in Lisbon, Portugal. So, if you head to the shore, remember to keep the beach clean, respect wildlife, and share with others how much the ocean means to you.
More people at the beach means more human interaction with marine wildlife. Sharks, and other wildlife, may be closer than you think. But fear not! As we head into Shark Week this month, remember that the biggest predators in the ocean are humans. You can dive into some “fin-tastic” shark content in the arts and culture section. It’s also turtle nesting season. If you have the privilege of watching hatchlings head to the sea, remember to keep your distance, stay quiet, and avoid bright lights and flash photography.
For an ocean enthusiast, June is a complicated month. The first official turn to summer brings the promise of basking beach days, fiery sunsets, and the chance to spot seasonal marine life. In this issue, RCC Presidential Fellow, Kaylee Rodriquez, reflects on how growing up on the beaches of the Florida Keys in the footsteps of Rachel Carson led her to become an environmentalist and still gives her hope. As National Ocean Month, June also ushers in a flurry of ocean-related activity among marine policy-makers and conservationists. For Washingtonians, the culmination is Capitol Hill Ocean Week (CHOW). The week feels like a breath of fresh sea air – a chance to reconnect with ocean colleagues from past experiences and collectively celebrate the gifts of the sea we love.
Rachel Carson drew strength and solace from the sea and shore. On her birthday, as we head into National Ocean Month, it is appropriate that I write a final greeting and reflect on my own return to the sea as I end my year as an RCC Fellow and co-lead of the RCC Coasts and Oceans program and its newsletter, the Observer.
I made my first trip out to the ocean in a year at the start of this month. A whole year of writing and reading and advocating for the ocean, and yet I had been miles and miles away from its soft sand and crashing waves. Returning to the ocean felt like a warm welcome home. I let the sun warm my skin and the sand squish between my toes. Most of all I let the ceaseless ocean breeze remind me—for the first time in a long time—to take a deep breath and let it go.
This past week, we celebrated Earth Day. I made the customary trip outside to my local park, made my customary donations, and went about my Earth Day as a good environmentalist. But I went through the day feeling the weight of my identity as an environmentalist while wondering: why do I care about the environment everyday while accepting that the world seems to only care one day out of the year? Then I came across a poem that addresses this uncomfortable cultural hypocrisy by the young writer, Willow Defebaugh.
During this Women’s History Month, it is impossible to overlook the contributions of the countless inspirational women working to keep our oceans healthy and thriving. It all started with pioneers in the field, women who wanted to go beneath the waves and show the world why we needed to care for our ocean blue. Of course, giants like Rachel Carson and Sylvia Earle come to mind, but I find myself continuously inspired by the sheer number of women coming up in a generation of change-makers. They are already leaving their mark in the fields of marine science, policy, activism, and storytelling. Check out the spotlighted stories of amazing women in the review section of this Observer. Stay tuned for a new article on inspirational women changing the world by saving our oceans.
Not in my back yard. Voices from communities all over the coastal United States used to ring in union as they protested the first wave of offshore wind investment. Even with the support of the EPA, energy companies failed to win public support. From Nantucket down to Kitty Hawk, locals and tourists alike gawked at computer generated images depicting their favorite coastlines dotted with wind turbines ( looking more like toothpicks on the horizon than towers the size of the Statue of Liberty.) Fast forward to 2022, New York has begun construction on their first offshore wind farm with dozens planned for the Atlantic and Pacific coasts in the coming years. So, what changed?
I was a bright-eyed, 10-year-old when one morning, I started seeing images of blackened birds, fish, and turtles all over the tv when my mom and dad would watch the news. “There’s been an oil spill,” they explained. I’d never seen oil before with the exception of the occasional leak beneath my dad’s 14-year-old, tan sedan. I remember feeling sick thinking about those seabirds with their wings cruelly glued together with toxic sludge, dead fish washing up in droves on the shore, and turtles sick and poisoned from that evil black sea ink.
The nightmare fuel for marine lovers continues to wreak havoc across the coastlines. After last year’s devastating spill in California, environmental groups have made progress shutting down these dangerous drillers from coast to coast. Environmental groups have successfully brought several lawsuits against oil companies and government agencies alike and as a result, California is considering banning drilling along the coastlines all together, which would be a huge step forward towards clean beaches, happy marine habitats, and climate mitigation.
As cold weather settles in across the U.S., many ocean lovers find themselves longing for the endless summer days on the beaches, enjoying the cooling sea breeze, feeling the warm sand underfoot, and wondering at the majestic creatures dancing in the waves. It is easy in these darker months to feel less connected with the oceans, especially for those who live further inland. But the amount of back and forth action going on in the fight to save our oceans is enough to make one sea sick, so hold on!
Not even a week after the end of the climate talks in Glasgow, the Biden Administration auctioned off $192 million worth of federal drilling leases in the Gulf of Mexico. But it may not be… all bad? Early reports indicate that Exxon Mobile purchased 94 lease plots to start a $100 billion project to establish carbon capture and storage facilities.
Leading up to spooky season, the scariest goblins and ghouls of October 2021 are looking like a fight over the U.S. federal budget, an impending energy shortage, and the pressure hanging over Glasgow climate commitments. All of these have critical effects on environmentalists’ vision for a critical clean energy transition in the U.S. And the ocean has a huge role to play! This month, the Biden administration unveiled its plan to roll out a 25 GW expansion of wind energy across both coastlines, with projects in five different states getting federal approval to proceed in negotiations with private contractors and investors. Additionally, Duke University recently received federal funding to research the impacts of these expanded wind operations on wildlife (particularly migrating birds) to make sure that the administration does not turn its back on marine life conservation in the process of this energy transition.
No words can convey the dire state of our oceans and the climate crisis better than the photos of Hurricane Ida’s aftermath, stretching from the Louisiana coast to the streets of New York. Overall, the death toll from Ida came to 82 people across four different states. While scientists predicted early on that this year’s Atlantic storm season would be record breaking, coastal states did not anticipate twice-monthly torrential storms with more on the horizon as Tropical Depression Nicholas breaks on the Gulf coast. Ida proved that all types of critical infrastructure systems will continue to falter under the impacts of intensified storms. Power grids went down (and stayed down) with the exception of many solar powered systems; fossil fuel giants tried to cover up amassive oil spill in the gulf; and hundreds of thousands of Americans are stranded without running water for the foreseeable future. And these storms are only more complicated to navigate in a year with record heatand the Delta variant devasting the Southeast.
In the last few months, millions of Americans have spent weekends and vacation days on the beaches and coasts, trying to escape record-breaking temperatures nation-wide. Many of these vacationers are starting to see what’s really going on in our oceans in the news and scientific reports. Shark Week this year highlighted the magnificence and power of sharks but failed to address the mass slaughter of sharks happening daily. By July, moremanatees had died than in any previous year. Scientist reported that emperor penguin colonies are “doomed for extinction.”
But lawmakers and ocean activists alike are making progress in the fight for stronger marine conservation and ocean climate resilience. This month in the halls of Congress, legislators pushed bills to stop devastating shark finning, ban imports of fish tied to illegal labor practices, and add 16,000 acres of ocean to protect orcas. Cities from New York to Miami to Houston are crafting infrastructure and urban planning proposals to avoid the worst impacts of sea level rise and coastal degradation, and the federal infrastructure bill includes funding to support these efforts.
Quite literally on fire. Oil spills in the Caspian Sea and the Gulf of Mexico produced terrifying pictures of pools of fire floating on the sea, killing marine life with flames and smothering fossil fuels. And it’s not just heat from burning flames hurting ocean ecosystems. Scientists are reporting that the recent Pacific Northwest heat wave likely cooked a billion seashore animals alive as shells continue to wash up on the shore from California to Canada. The oceans are visibly crying out for help.
Policy leaders seem to finally be listening. June (World Ocean’s Month) was unprecedented for ocean action at the state, national, and international level. The U.S. passed groundbreaking policy to protect sharks from finning, expanded plans for offshore wind expansion from California to New Jersey, and joined global efforts to advance ocean protected areas. Individual states from Pennsylvania to North Carolina took concrete steps to phase out plastic bags, set ambitious offshore wind targets, and use natural prevention methods to minimize the impacts of sea level rise.
I was a child on Long Island jumping waves and making sandcastles at Jones Beach when Rachel Carson’s huge best-seller, The Sea-Around Us, swept into the American consciousness. I collected shells from the wrack line – scallops, razor clams, whelks, moon shells and more. I watched endless, wheeling gulls and terns, worried about sand sharks and jellyfish, and saw unforgettable beauty as hundreds and hundreds of Monarchs gathered in the dunes to begin their mysterious migration.
Every day was World Oceans Day to me then. I saw no need to celebrate, or protect, something as awesome as the sea. Now you and I must do both. As you look, read, listen, and take action throughout this special edition of RCC’s Coasts and Ocean Observer, you will be joining with ocean lovers worldwide. Your guide, and our new lead for the Coasts and Ocean program, is Audrey Magnuson, who with me, edits The Observer.
Sea levels are rising faster now than any time over the past 2,000 years. As a result, flooding poses a growing threat to coastal communities, and salt water is seeping into North Carolina’s coast, leaving behind swaths of ghost forests. Biden’s infrastructure plan could initiate sweeping climate action, but –– despite accelerating sea level rise –– the plan barely mentions managed retreat, a term for coordinated movement of 13 million Americans that sea level rise could displace by the end of the century. Coastal flooding also unfairly burdens low-income and minority populations. This month, FEMA announced more equitable flood insurance rates, the first change to flood insurance prices in 50 years.
In Florida, another state threatened by sea level rise, manatees are starving as water pollution kills sea-grass. Additionally, ocean heating is driving species away from the equator. Such a massive redistribution of biodiversity could radically alter, and even collapse, marine food webs. In contrast, marine mammals keep ecosystems stable: sea otters in California prevent urchins from overrunning kelp forests and whales act as ocean fertilizers.
Ocean pollution poses a grave threat to both human and marine life. Several studies made headlines this month detailing the negative impacts of human debris in the sea. Ranging from plastic gyres swirling in the Great Pacific Garbage Patch to invisible yet insidious chemicals, fertilizers, pesticides, and mercury washing into the ocean, anthropogenic pollution takes many forms––including sound––and knows few boundaries. Such a slew of pollutants harms human health and fertility as well as marine ecosystems. We understand the risks. But will we act on such threats?
Human and marine life are also affected by our increasingly turbulent climate. As a harsh winter storm in Texas left millions without power, hitting minority communities the hardest, thousands of cold-stunned turtles washed ashore on Texas beaches. Tireless volunteers at Sea Turtle Inc. rescued 3,500 turtles. Unfortunately, climate change means that such extreme events aren’t going away.
Since the last edition of the RCC Coasts and Ocean Observer, we have entered a new year and inaugurated a new president. While we celebrate newfound hope for ocean and climate action, we also aim to bring 2020’s many layers of ocean news to the surface. One good thing from 2020: long-overdue efforts were made in promoting diversity and inclusion in marine science, with multiple campaigns over the past year celebrating Black representation in science.
On a much less positive note, record amounts of plastic pollution entered the ocean as single-use plastic disposal spiked during the COVID-19 pandemic. Other 2020 records unfortunately include record-high ocean temperatures, spelling trouble for temperature sensitive marine organisms such as corals and stirring up an unprecedented number of hurricanes that made landfall in the U.S. For more of the past year’s top ocean news stories, check out this list curated by marine scientists from the University of California, Santa Barbara.
This month, new research stirs up our previous understanding of the ocean’s role as a carbon sink. Turns out, as emissions decline, so does the ocean’s capacity to absorb carbon, potentially obscuring the true impact of emission reduction efforts.
Marine habitats influence carbon storage. Seagrasses, prairies of the sea, form vital habitats for fish and sea turtles, but that isn’t all. These swaying, underwater fields are also one of our best tools for sequestering carbon; seagrass meadows store carbon 30 times faster than most forests! Despite its many benefits, seagrass is afforded less protection compared to other marine habitats such as coral and mangroves. The good news is that, overall, the area of protected ocean habitat is expanding. This month, one the world’s largest marine sanctuaries was set in the South Atlantic islands of Tristan da Cunha.
Over the past month, multiple hurricanesthrashed against the coastal Southeast, making climate action all the more urgent. Climate action is not always equitable, however. In wealthy coastal communities, federal funding is more likely to go towards armoring shorelines with expensive sea walls. Meanwhile, federal buy-outs are more common in low-income communities and communities of color. Such unequitable distribution of coastal protection in the United States heightens inequality in coastal communities, creating a new form climate gentrification.
Recent marine science research has made multiple headlines this month. And the news isn’t all positive: marine heat waves have become more than 20 times more frequent over the past 40 years due to human activity according to a study published last month in Science. These heat waves are damaging to marine organisms, increasing species’ risk of disease and causing their food sources to migrate. And while climate change is warming and acidifying ocean waters, it can be easy to forget about the physical footprint of man-made structures on the marine environment – that is until a recent study quantified the area of sea floor disrupted by human infrastructure, which is 30,000 kilometers!
We perceive limits of the ocean to be where waves lap at the shore. But, increasingly, our marine and terrestrial worlds are colliding. Warmer waters and marine heat waves increase the frequency of tropical storms and hurricanes, washing over coastal towns and eating away at any clear boundaries between land and sea. On Thursday last week, Hurricane Laura made landfall as one of the most powerful storms ever to hit the U.S.
First and foremost, everyone at the RCC hopes our readers are safe. For those who want to help victims of the storm, consider this list of organizations and ways you can help residents in Texas and Louisiana rebuild.
Welcome to the inaugural issue of our latest newsletter, the Rachel Carson Council Coasts and Ocean Observer. With each issue, our staff and contributors will explore a sea of news and information, curating and bringing you the best studies, stories and resources to stay informed about the latest events and discoveries on the shore and beyond. For with knowledge, we have the power to act and make change. Read on for the latest stories, RCC writings, actions and reflections. For even more, click here to visit the Coasts and Ocean section of our web site.