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.