Our Reefs – Our Life – for Our Way

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I just submitted an article to Our Way,  the in-flight magazine of Airlines PNG with the title Our Reefs – Our Life.  It addresses the issue of “The Other Carbon Dioxide Problem” that is gradually sneaking into the news. Today, I’ll give you a (very) condensed version of the article and show you the fifteen images that go with it. Sorry if it seems a little disjointed. I just jerked out whole sections of text to make it short enough for a readable post. The original ran about 1,600 words.  [please read the UPDATE at the end of the post]

Covering more than 5.4 million square kilometres of the Southwest Pacific, one percent of the Earth‘s surface, the Coral Triangle extends from Indonesia in the west to the Solomon Islands in the east and the Philippines in the north. It contains more than 3,000 species of fish. More than 600 species of reef-building coral, seventy-five percent of all coral species on Earth, abide here.

The hottest debate involves the complex issue of the Carbon Cycle. Carbon dioxide combines with water to form carbonic acid. This happens as rain falls through the atmosphere. You can perform a simple experiment in your kitchen to understand why this is important. Fill a glass half full of water and add a few spoons of vinegar. Vinegar is acidic. It will be your substitute for the carbon dioxide dissolved in the ocean water. Drop a small sea shell into the glass. When you come back in a few hours you will see bubbles forming on the sea shell and rising to the surface of the water. These bubbles are carbon dioxide.

The animal that once inhabited the sea shell worked very hard to build its house by extracting carbon from the sea water to form calcium carbonate, one of the primary structural materials of the ocean. If you had put the sea shell in plain water, nothing would have happened. However, because the water is acidic, it is reversing the building process by pulling the carbon away from the calcium carbonate, combining it once again with oxygen, and releasing it again into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide. Research has disclosed that in the past 250 years the oceans have absorbed about 530 billion tonnes of excess carbon dioxide, triggering a thirty percent increase in ocean acidity.

The acidity of the oceans remained relatively constant over the last 20 million years. Projections now indicate that ocean acidity will double by the year 2100. Go back to your kitchen and try that little experiment again using twice as much vinegar.

A healthy ocean takes huge quantities of carbon dioxide out of the air and puts it safely on the bottom. As free-swimming creatures die, their remains, containing carbon absorbed from the atmosphere, sink to the depths and are effectively removed from the cycle until tectonic movements subduct them under plates and spew them out of volcanoes again as fresh carbon dioxide. This recycling of carbon takes hundreds of millions of years.

The other important carbon sequestration action of the ocean occurs when creatures use carbon as one of the primary building materials of coral reefs. The effect is the same. Carbon dioxide is removed from our atmosphere and put somewhere more useful and less harmful. An ocean that is too acidic not only cannot play its role in the Carbon Cycle by putting carbon in a safe place, but instead releases yet more carbon dioxide into the atmosphere because of the release of the gas as you saw in the experiment.

A more immediate danger is that the very ability of sea life to reproduce and grow properly is seriously impaired by the increased acidity. Researchers are now finding many more examples of the ways in which ocean life will be stunted and diminished by the increased acidity. Doomsayers predict dead oceans. Dead oceans mean a dead planet.

Atmospheric contamination by the effects of man’s continuing efforts to consume the entire planet are global, but here in Madang, as in countless other places around the world, our life-giving reefs are threatened by local sources of poison. Even as you read this, a debate rages in Madang between the conservation-minded and commercial interests, in the form of a mining company, concerning the relative safety of dumping tailings into Astrolabe Bay, our cradle of life.

The mining company reports that the depth at which the massive quantities of intensely poisonous heavy metals and other noxious substances are dumped is safe because it is below the layer at which surface waters and deep waters mix. Other reports say the opposite. The point is that the killing substances are going into the ocean. It matters little, over the long term, how deep.

To this writer, the debate itself seems insane. The idea of dumping any poisons anywhere into the oceans that sustain life on our planet seems to be madness and those desiring to do it in the name of profit and those governments allowing it need to be called upon to explain and justify such action. UPDATE: Recent reports on safe submarine tailings disposals and the specific plans for this case seem to me to support the position that there will be no significant environmental damage. Not being a scientist, I can only accept that the current plan is acceptable, considering and balancing the desparate need for development.

As individuals, we concern ourselves with our own futures and those of our children, their children, and future generations. Corporations and, apparently, governments have little concern for the distant future. Can we trust those whose primary concern is the presentation of the next annual report at a stockholders’ meeting or the next governmental election to have the future of our grandchildren at the top of their agendas? Let them prove to us that they are trustworthy.

History shows us clearly that we have the power, as collectives of like-minded and concerned individuals utilising the tools of our democracy in a peacefull manner, to force sweeping changes of policy. Does the name Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. ring a bell? We can take back control of our future.

Do we care enough? Are we brave enough to do so?

Well, that’s about half of what I wrote. You’ve seen many of these images already on Madang – Ples Bilong Mi:

Goodbye and thanks for all the fish.

UPDATE: My good friend Kyle Harris emailed me in time to keep me from making a fool of myself. I’ll have to do a bit of rewriting before the article is published. The oceans are not, in any way acidic, nor are they likely to be in the near future. On the scale that science uses (the pH scale), where water is neutral, the oceans are alkaline, not acidic. I know this, of course, but my article, as written, makes a dog’s breakfast of it. I should be saying that the ocean is becomming more acidic in the sense that it is less alkaline – it’s moving towards neutral. Since ocean life is used to the alkalinity, the move towards neutral (less alkaline – more acidic) requires that they adapt or die. If the move is too fast, then adaptiation is not possible – there’s just not enough time. I also need to make it clear that the vinegar demonstration is completely unscientific – it’s just a trick. Kyle mentioned studies that indicate that the oceans will not likely reach neutral (pH 7) and move onto the acidic side of the pH scale until about 2200. You’ll have to wait longer than that to see seashells bubbling carbon dioxide back into the atmosphere.

Though I have no defense, and Kyle is absolutely right, I’ll mention that I just Googled “more acidic” and ocean and got 56.000 hits. Aparantly I’m not the only one using the term.

This teaches me a lesson. When I’m dealing with a complex subject, oversimplification is worse that not saying anythign at all. Thanks, Kyle.

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4 Responses to “Our Reefs – Our Life – for Our Way”

  1. Steve Goodheart Says:

    Jan, great piece! The voice of one “crying in the wilderness” of scientific ignorance and corporate greed and short-sightedness. I agree that this problem of increasing ocean acidity is one of the most serious our planet faces, and if one loves the creatures of the seas as you and I do, it’s almost heartbreaking to think of the damage and suffering this unprecedented change will bring.

    As for the mining dumping in your beloved Bay — I was stunned to hear about it. Total insanity and total scientific B.S. They don’t *know* what they claim about the long-term effects of such dumping and the addition of *tons* of poisons and heavy-metals to this complex ecosystem. Oh, and by the way, as you well know, it’s not like the ocean floor, even at extremely deep depths, is a desert for our private industrial sh*tting! One of the fairly recent discoveries is how much life there is at even abysmal depths. I just took a look at a satellite image of Astrolabe Bay (what a beauty!) — how can anyone can think that putting tons of toxins in that rather closed-looking system is going to be “safe” is beyond me, especially in an area of so much tectonic activity. Anyway, thanks for the warning cry — love to see the full article some time.

    Best wishes, Steve

  2. mike merrick Says:

    the more we know the more we find out that we actually know very little — thanks for lighting a candle in the darkness.

    hope they start paying you more for your submittals —

    i’m back in 3rd grade again. helpling Corliss’ students with reading and spelling.

  3. MadDog Says:

    Hi Mike. Getting cold there in Flint?

    You’re right. The most amazing thing I see in science today is how little is really known about some very fundamental things. I’m a member of AAAS, so I get the journal. Things are moving very quickly in many areas of discovery. It’s a fascinating time to be alive. There’s going to be a wild ride in the next fifty years. I wish I could be around to see it. I heard Bill Clinton say on Larry King the other night that children born today should have a life expectancy averaging over a hundred years. I can believe it, if we don’t mess up the environment so much that nobody’s around.

    FYI – I make about US$200 for an average article. Not much, but it helps keep foon on the table.

    I think I had to take the 3rd grade twice.


  4. MadDog Says:

    Thanks, Steve. Your comments are erudite and much appreciated.

    It is interesting that they are discovering so much life where there was once thought to be only “mud”.

    I was a crew member (just a deck hand) recently on an expedition with some scientists studying ancient tsunamis. (they were finding pieces of geologically recent coral several hundred metres up on the sides of mountains near the shores of islands). When discussing the tailings dumping in Astrolabe bay, one guy told me that what goes down eventually comes up. The place where the heavy metals in solution will rise is right in the middle of one the biggest tuna breeding areas.

    It just keeps getting worse and worse.