By Elizabeth Claire Alberts
The future for the world's oceans often looks grim. Fisheries are set to collapse by 2048, according to one study, and 8 million tons of plastic pollute the ocean every year, causing considerable damage to delicate marine ecosystems. Yet a new study in Nature offers an alternative, and more optimistic view on the ocean's future: it asserts that the entire marine environment could be substantially rebuilt by 2050, if humanity is able to step up to the challenge.
The key to success, the authors say, is lessening the impact and stresses on the ocean, while restoring damaged ecosystems, and trying to reduce carbon emissions that drive climate change.
This study examines nine parts of the ocean in detail — salt marshes, mangroves, seagrasses, coral reefs, kelp, oyster reefs, fisheries, megafauna, and the deep ocean — and suggests critical and realistic steps that can be taken to restore and protect these areas.
The authors refer to several models of success for reversing the decline of marine life. For instance, the global wildlife trade treaty CITES and and a 1982 moratorium on commercial whaling have reduced hunting of endangered species and helped protect the critical habitats these species depend upon. Depleted fish populations have also rebounded in response to proper management techniques.
While the study fosters an optimistic view of future ocean health, it concedes that some parts of the ocean will be more difficult to restore. For instance, coral reef systems have the added pressure of bleaching events due to climate change, and the process of restoring damaged reefs is slow and expensive. However, the study notes that there are efforts to discover coral that's resistant to temperature change and bleaching events.
Restoring the oceans would be no small feat, and would require stable governmental policies, a large financial investment, and the continued evolution of scientific advances and technologies, the authors say. Action would also need to take place within a very short space of time.
But the biggest obstacle to restoring the oceans is mitigating the effects of climate change, according to Callum Roberts, a co-author of the study and professor at the University of York in the U.K.
"Climate change is the big problem that is looming over everything because it makes recovering nature harder, and as the climate changes, it's going to become more difficult," Roberts told Mongabay. "That's why we have to act very quickly now to start restoring nature, because that's going to help human societies to adapt over time, as well as to allow nature a better chance to survive and thrive through a changing climate."
Despite the challenges, Roberts says he believes the oceans are incredibly resilient. This is evident in marine protected areas (MPAs), where fishing and other human activities are prohibited, Roberts says.
"I've seen in localized areas how recovery can take place, and how it can take place quite quickly and spectacularly," he said. "When you protect areas, you can predict very easily the way that the response will go. You start off with things becoming more abundant, living longer, producing more offspring. Then you see the reconstruction of habitat structures on the seabed or kelp forests, then the return of some of the rarer things."
This year was supposed to be the "Ocean Super Year," with several ocean-related meetings and negotiations meant to take place, including the 4th High Seas Treaty negotiation, the U.N. Ocean Conference, Monaco Blue Initiative, and the International Maritime Organization, which included a session with the Marine Environment Protection Committee. However, most have been cancelled or postponed due to COVID-19.
The pandemic itself has also prompted some reprieve for the oceans from human pressure, although Roberts said it's too early to identify the long-term effects.
"A lot of fishing boats are tied up right now, and that's definitely going to give a short-term benefit to marine life," he said. "Longer term, I don't know. But I think there will be a lot of thinking done after this crisis about how we need to do things better."
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By Alexander Freund
Lebanese Prime Minister Hassan Diab says he believes Tuesday's explosion in Beirut could have been caused by large quantities of ammonium nitrate stored in the port.
What Is Ammonium Nitrate?<p>Ammonium nitrate is a white crystalline salt that can be fairly cheaply produced from ammonia and nitric acid. It is soluble and often used as fertilizer, as nitrogen is needed for healthy plant development.</p><p>Ammonium nitrate in its pure form is not dangerous. It is, however, heat sensitive. At 32.2 degrees Celsius (89.96 degrees Fahrenheit), ammonium nitrate changes its atomic structure, which in turn changes its chemical properties.</p><p>When large quantities of ammonium nitrate are stored in one place, heat is generated. If the amount is sufficiently vast, it can cause the chemical to ignite. Once a temperature of 170 C is reached, ammonium nitrate starts breaking down, emitting nitrous oxide, better known as laughing gas. Any sudden ignition causes ammonium nitrate to decompose directly into water, nitrogen and oxygen, which explains the enormous explosive power of the salt.</p>
Deadly Disasters<p>As ammonium nitrate is a highly explosive chemical, many countries strictly regulate its use. Over the past 100 years, there have been several disasters involving the chemical.</p><p>In 1921, for example, a massive blast occurred at a BASF chemical plant in Ludwigshafen in the German state of Rhineland-Palatinate. About 400 metric tons of a mixture of ammonium sulfate and ammonium nitrate exploded, killing 559 people and injuring 1,977. The plant was largely destroyed in the blast, which could be heard as far away as Munich, some 300 kilometers (186 miles) distant.</p><p>In 2015, explosions caused by ammonium nitrate ripped through the <a href="https://www.dw.com/en/china-convicts-dozens-for-last-years-giant-explosions-in-tianjin/a-36324321" target="_blank">Chinese port city of Tianjin</a>. Eight hundred metric tons of the chemical were said to have been stored along with other substances in a warehouse for hazardous materials. The blasts killed 173 people and destroyed an entire city district.</p><p>Two years earlier, in 2013, an ammonium nitrate explosion occurred at the West Fertilizer Company site in Texas, killing 14 people. And in 2001, 31 people died in Toulouse, France, in an explosion caused by the chemical.</p>
Terrorist Favorite<p>In Germany, the purchase and use of ammonium nitrate is regulated by the explosives act. This is because the cheap, highly explosive and relatively easily obtainable material has in the past been used by terrorists to carry out attacks.</p><p>For example, in 1995, U.S. conspiracy theorist and gun enthusiast Timothy McVeigh used a mixture of ammonium nitrate and other substances to bomb the Alfred P. Murrah Federal Building in Oklahoma City. Norwegian far-right extremist Anders Behring Breivik also used ammonium nitrate in a car bomb attack in Oslo in 2011.</p>
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As innocuous as the food pyramid and MyPlate seem, they are actually a matter of life and death.
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