What the Government Shutdown Means for Our Coasts and Ocean
By Pete Stauffer
The partial shutdown of the federal government reached its 16th day on Monday with no immediate resolution in sight. With border security politics dominating the headlines, Republican and Democrat lawmakers remained locked in a stalemate while President Trump signaled a willingness to keep the government shut down for months or even years. The upshot is that dozens of federal agencies remain closed or operating at minimum capacity until the gridlock in DC is resolved.
Among the government agencies impacted are those responsible for managing our nation's coastal and ocean resources. These include the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), the National Parks Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and others. But what do these government closures really mean for our coasts and ocean, and the millions of people who use these resources? Here's a list of some of the impacts:
1. Clean Water Programs
Numerous EPA programs that protect clean water and public health are currently suspended. The shutdown is disrupting everything from wastewater permitting to enforcement actions against polluters. The result is that the Clean Water Act—the landmark law that protects our nation's rivers, lakes and oceans—is rendered dormant while the federal government is closed. Also affected is the BEACH grants program that monitors water quality at thousands of U.S. beaches and remains unfunded for 2019. Finally, only a single NOAA staff person is monitoring Harmful Algal Blooms (HABs) such as the recent events off Florida that devastated marine life and coastal communities.
2) National Parks & Marine Sanctuaries
At least 70 national parks have closed across the country while others are understaffed and plagued with overflowing trash and toilets. Among the coastal parks impacted by the shutdown are Point Reyes (CA), Olympic (WA), Gulf Islands Seashore (FL), Assateague Island (MD), Acadia (ME) and many others. As National Geographic recently noted, damage is likely to extend well after the shutdown is resolved. On the ocean side, NOAA's Office of Marine Sanctuaries, which manages 14 marine protected areas encompassing more than 783,000 square miles, is closed and unable to complete its mandate of protecting our nation's most outstanding ocean ecosystems.
3) Coastal Management
States and communities depend on federal support to manage coastlines and keep these vital resources open for public use. Because of the shutdown, NOAA has suspended its national estuaries, coastal resilience, marine debris and Sea Grant programs. These programs not only protect beaches, rocky shores and wildlife, they also help communities plan for sea level rise and extreme weather events. In addition, NOAA's Coastal Zone Management (CZM) program, which provides grants to 34 state coastal programs, remains unfunded for 2019. Lack of federal funding would be disastrous for many state programs and coastal communities that rely on this support.
4) Scientific Research
Agencies like NOAA, EPA and the National Science Foundation conduct research that's critical to the sound management of coastal ecosystems. Many federal scientists have been forced to stop their work during the shutdown, causing delays and disruptions to ongoing research. Projects impacted range from coral reef studies in the Pacific to fisheries surveys in the Gulf of Mexico to sea ice monitoring in the Arctic. The shutdown has also suspended important climate change research programs. In response, the American Association for the Advancement of Science has issued a statement urging for a swift resolution to the federal budget.
Making Our Voice Heard
It's notable (but not surprising) that impacts to the coast and ocean have received scant attention during the media's breathless coverage of the government shutdown. That's why Surfrider is working to elevate the voice of people who love the coast through our United States & Oceans of America campaign and federal advocacy efforts.
This winter, Surfrider and our partners will travel to Washington, DC for Coastal Recreation Hill Day to meet with congressional offices and federal agencies in support of coastal and ocean conservation. You can make your voice heard by calling your representatives in the House and Senate and urging them to support laws and funding to protect our coasts and ocean!
How the #GovernmentShutdown Could Impact the Nation’s Environment https://t.co/7OBrP0EHJQ— EcoWatch (@EcoWatch)1545968651.0
By Peter Giger
The speed and scale of the response to COVID-19 by governments, businesses and individuals seems to provide hope that we can react to the climate change crisis in a similarly decisive manner - but history tells us that humans do not react to slow-moving and distant threats.
A Game of Jenga<p>Think of it as a game of Jenga and the planet's climate system as the tower. For generations, we have been slowly removing blocks. But at some point, we will remove a pivotal block, such as the collapse of one of the major global ocean circulation systems, for example the Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation (AMOC), that will cause all or part of the global climate system to fall into a planetary emergency.</p><p>But worse still, it could cause runaway damage: Where the tipping points form a domino-like cascade, where breaching one triggers breaches of others, creating an unstoppable shift to a radically and swiftly changing climate.</p><p>One of the most concerning tipping points is mass methane release. Methane can be found in deep freeze storage within permafrost and at the bottom of the deepest oceans in the form of methane hydrates. But rising sea and air temperatures are beginning to thaw these stores of methane.</p><p>This would release a powerful greenhouse gas into the atmosphere, 30-times more potent than carbon dioxide as a global warming agent. This would drastically increase temperatures and rush us towards the breach of other tipping points.</p><p>This could include the acceleration of ice thaw on all three of the globe's large, land-based ice sheets – Greenland, West Antarctica and the Wilkes Basin in East Antarctica. The potential collapse of the West Antarctic ice sheet is seen as a key tipping point, as its loss could eventually <a href="https://science.sciencemag.org/content/324/5929/901" target="_blank">raise global sea levels by 3.3 meters</a> with important regional variations.</p><p>More than that, we would be on the irreversible path to full land-ice melt, causing sea levels to rise by up to 30 meters, roughly at the rate of two meters per century, or maybe faster. Just look at the raised beaches around the world, at the last high stand of global sea level, at the end of the Pleistocene period around 120,0000 years ago, to see the evidence of such a warm world, which was just 2°C warmer than the present day.</p>
Cutting Off Circulation<p>As well as devastating low-lying and coastal areas around the world, melting polar ice could set off another tipping point: a disablement to the AMOC.</p><p>This circulation system drives a northward flow of warm, salty water on the upper layers of the ocean from the tropics to the northeast Atlantic region, and a southward flow of cold water deep in the ocean.</p><p>The ocean conveyor belt has a major effect on the climate, seasonal cycles and temperature in western and northern Europe. It means the region is warmer than other areas of similar latitude.</p><p>But melting ice from the Greenland ice sheet could threaten the AMOC system. It would dilute the salty sea water in the north Atlantic, making the water lighter and less able or unable to sink. This would slow the engine that drives this ocean circulation.</p><p><a href="https://www.carbonbrief.org/atlantic-conveyor-belt-has-slowed-15-per-cent-since-mid-twentieth-century" target="_blank">Recent research</a> suggests the AMOC has already weakened by around 15% since the middle of the 20th century. If this continues, it could have a major impact on the climate of the northern hemisphere, but particularly Europe. It may even lead to the <a href="https://ore.exeter.ac.uk/repository/handle/10871/39731?show=full" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">cessation of arable farming</a> in the UK, for instance.</p><p>It may also reduce rainfall over the Amazon basin, impact the monsoon systems in Asia and, by bringing warm waters into the Southern Ocean, further destabilize ice in Antarctica and accelerate global sea level rise.</p>
The Atlantic Meridional Overturning Circulation has a major effect on the climate. Praetorius (2018)
Is it Time to Declare a Climate Emergency?<p>At what stage, and at what rise in global temperatures, will these tipping points be reached? No one is entirely sure. It may take centuries, millennia or it could be imminent.</p><p>But as COVID-19 taught us, we need to prepare for the expected. We were aware of the risk of a pandemic. We also knew that we were not sufficiently prepared. But we didn't act in a meaningful manner. Thankfully, we have been able to fast-track the production of vaccines to combat COVID-19. But there is no vaccine for climate change once we have passed these tipping points.</p><p><a href="https://www.weforum.org/reports/the-global-risks-report-2021" target="_blank">We need to act now on our climate</a>. Act like these tipping points are imminent. And stop thinking of climate change as a slow-moving, long-term threat that enables us to kick the problem down the road and let future generations deal with it. We must take immediate action to reduce global warming and fulfill our commitments to the <a href="https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/" target="_blank" rel="noopener noreferrer">Paris Agreement</a>, and build resilience with these tipping points in mind.</p><p>We need to plan now to mitigate greenhouse gas emissions, but we also need to plan for the impacts, such as the ability to feed everyone on the planet, develop plans to manage flood risk, as well as manage the social and geopolitical impacts of human migrations that will be a consequence of fight or flight decisions.</p><p>Breaching these tipping points would be cataclysmic and potentially far more devastating than COVID-19. Some may not enjoy hearing these messages, or consider them to be in the realm of science fiction. But if it injects a sense of urgency to make us respond to climate change like we have done to the pandemic, then we must talk more about what has happened before and will happen again.</p><p>Otherwise we will continue playing Jenga with our planet. And ultimately, there will only be one loser – us.</p>
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