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By Katie Lambert and Sarah Gleim
The United Nations suggests that climate change is not just the defining issue of our time, but we are also at a defining moment in history. Weather patterns are changing and will threaten food production, and sea levels are rising and could cause catastrophic flooding across the globe. Countries must make drastic actions to avoid a future with irreversible damage to major ecosystems and planetary climate.
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By Tara Lohan
The Sargasso Sea, an area of the Atlantic Ocean between the Caribbean and Bermuda, has bedeviled sailors for centuries. Its namesake — sargassum, a type of free-floating seaweed — and notoriously calm winds have "trapped" countless mariners, including the crew of Christopher Columbus's Santa Maria.
Results from the global data-driven conservation planning analysis showing priority areas to be considered for protection (green) in marine areas beyond national jurisdiction. Visalli et al
Quantifying the Great Unknown<p>The high seas make up two-thirds of the ocean, much of which is remote. Scientists are still learning about the diversity and complexity of life there.</p><p>"We're discovering new species in the high seas all the time," said Morgan Visalli, lead author of <em>Marine Policy</em> study and a project scientist with U.C. Santa Barbara's <a href="https://boi.ucsb.edu/" target="_blank">Benioff Ocean Initiative</a>.</p><p>But at the same time, her colleague and study coauthor Douglas McCauley, director of the Benioff Ocean Initiative, said there's also a lot we <em>do</em> know that can help guide conservation.</p><p>They began their study by reaching out to networks of colleagues across the world to help gather data.</p><p>"I was really impressed by how much we actually know — how much data we have for what is out there, biologically speaking," he said. "And also what people are doing in that space. We can't fall back on the excuse of not knowing enough."</p><p>The researchers ended up analyzing 22 billion data points — a huge data-processing challenge — to identify areas of the high seas that could warrant protection.</p><p>That included looking at indicators such as seafloor habitat, ocean productivity, diversity and richness of species, and extinction risks. They also identified certain physical features — like seamounts and hydrothermal vents — where changes in elevation and temperature help foster biodiversity.</p><p>Their results identified <a href="https://www.pewtrusts.org/en/research-and-analysis/reports/2020/03/a-path-to-creating-the-first-generation-of-high-seas-protected-areas" target="_blank">priority regions</a> in nearly all the major ocean basins, with the largest areas in the South Pacific Ocean. Key areas also included the Sargasso Sea, as well as the Costa Rica thermal dome in the Pacific Ocean; the South Tasman Sea; the Emperor Seamount Chain northwest of the Hawaiian Islands; the Mascarene Plateau in the Indian Ocean; and the Walvis Ridge, an undersea mountain range off southwestern Africa.</p>
UCSB analysis; Marineregions.org; Natural Earth. © 2020 The Pew Charitable Trusts<p>Their model avoided areas of high fishing activity in order to avoid what the study calls "real or perceived negative socioeconomic impacts" of setting aside conservation areas. It also took into consideration how climate change could alter biodiversity by selecting areas critical today and ones likely to be important in the future as well.</p>
The Need for Protection<p>The research comes at a critical time for the future of the ocean — and the high seas, specifically.</p><p>A new United Nations treaty to protect and conserve biodiversity in the high seas is<a href="https://therevelator.org/high-seas-treaty/" target="_blank"> currently being negotiated</a>, and a focus of those talks is how to create a framework for establishing marine protected areas outside of national waters. This could help ensure that unique ecosystems like the Sargasso Sea and others identified in the <em>Marine Policy</em> study aren't overexploited.</p><p>The current law that governs the high seas, the United Nations Convention on the Law of the Sea, was finalized in 1982. But since then, our collective impact is starting to reveal gaps in governance.</p><p>Marine shipping traffic is up 1,600 percent and plastic pollution has increased 100-fold. At least one-third of fish stocks are being overharvested, and many migratory fish species, such as tuna, have declined more than 60 percent. Technological advances have led to more prospecting in the ocean's depths for minerals and other genetic resources, as well as more destructive practices, like trawling along the ocean floor. Climate change, which is warming waters and increasing acidification, poses even more risks to ocean life.</p>
Coral bleaching in the Gulf of Thailand. Petchrung Sukpong / CC BY-SA 2.0<p>This has all taken a toll.</p><p>A <a href="https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/blog/2019/05/nature-decline-unprecedented-report/" target="_blank">landmark report</a> last year from the Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services found massive declines in biodiversity globally — including in the ocean, with one-third of all reef-forming corals and marine mammals threatened with extinction.</p><p>A recent study in the journal <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/s41586-020-2146-7" target="_blank" style="">Nature</a>, published just a few days after the <em>Marine Policy</em> study, suggests that we've come to a critical crossroads.</p><p>"We are at a point at which we can choose between a legacy of a resilient and vibrant ocean or an irreversibly disrupted ocean, for the generations to follow," wrote the researchers, led by Carlos Duarte, a professor of marine science at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology.</p><p>They posited that with enough resources and global will, we can see a "substantial recovery of the abundance, structure and function of marine life" by 2050. But to do that, we need to scale up efforts to protect vulnerable species and habitats, reduce pollution and — most critically — curb climate change.</p><p>That's why Visalli and McCauley believe efforts like the emerging high seas treaty are important.</p><p>So far fully implemented marine protected areas span just 5 percent of the ocean. And the vast majority of these reserves are in national waters, which are only one-third of the ocean. But a high seas treaty would help create a framework to more easily set aside conservation-rich areas in a much greater expanse.</p><p>"Even though there is industry out there and it has been increasing over the past several decades," said Visalli, "there is still a lot of wilderness in the high seas, and we are at this moment where we have an opportunity to protect these wild places before industry continues to expand even further."</p><p>To truly protect and restore ocean health, scientists have been calling for a bare minimum of 30 percent of the ocean to be protected. More protected areas in the high seas are important for meeting that goal. But just as crucial as how much space, is also <em>where</em> that space is.</p>
The Need for Protected Spaces<p>The major driver for changing and threatening biodiversity in the long term is climate change, said McCauley, which makes protecting these spaces vital in the short term.</p><p>"We are already seeing the first manifestation of these threats and we need to think about climate change and always manage the oceans — from fishing regulations to ocean parks — with that in mind," he said. "Climate change is changing where biodiversity will be in the high seas, and we can use data to plan for that."</p><p>Duarte and authors of the <em>Nature</em> study wrote that "Climate change is the critical backdrop against which all future rebuilding efforts will play out." But well-managed marine protected areas, they said, can help ecosystems be better equipped to handle threats from climate change, like warming temperatures and changing ocean chemistry.</p><p>Getting there won't be cheap. A global network of marine protected areas that conserves 20–30 percent of the ocean could cost $5–19 billion a year, the researchers write in <em>Nature</em>.</p><p>But supporting local economies, feeding communities, and fostering biodiversity don't have to be mutually exclusive. The money spent on conservation will be more than returned in economic gains from the new jobs, revenue from ecotourism, restored fisheries, and protections for coastal areas, their research found.</p><p>But establishing the policy and international agreements, like the high seas treaty, to set plans in motion will require a lot of compromise, said McCauley.</p><p>"We need that space to have an ocean economy and we need that space to have biodiversity," he said. "Can we find a sweet spot?"</p>
EcoWatch Daily Newsletter
By Marie Quinney
Biodiversity is critically important – to your health, to your safety and, probably, to your business or livelihood.
1. Biodiversity Ensures Health and Food Security.<p>Biodiversity underpins global nutrition and food security. Millions of species work together to provide us with a <a href="https://www.cbd.int/health/doc/Summary-SOK-Final.pdf" target="_blank">large array of fruits, vegetables and animal products essential to a healthy, balanced diet</a> – but they are increasingly under threat.</p><p>Every country has indigenous produce – such as wild greens and grains – which have adapted to local conditions, making them more resilient to pests and extreme weather. In the past, this produce provided much-needed micronutrients for local populations. Unfortunately, however, the <a href="http://www.fao.org/3/a-i1620e.pdf" target="_blank">simplification of diets, processed foods and poor access to food have led to poor-quality diets</a>. As a result, <a href="https://www.bioversityinternational.org/research-portfolio/diet-diversity/biodiversity-for-food-and-nutrition/" target="_blank">one-third of the world suffers from micronutrient deficiencies</a>.</p><p>Three crops – wheat, corn and rice – <a href="https://enviroliteracy.org/food/crops/" target="_blank">provide almost 60% of total plant-based calories consumed by humans</a>. This leads to reduced resiliency in our supply chains and on our plates. For example, <a href="http://www.fao.org/3/a-i1620e.pdf" target="_blank">the number of rice varieties cultivated in Asia has dropped from tens of thousands to just a few dozen; in Thailand, 50% of land used for growing rice only produces two varieties</a>.</p><p>People once understood that the conservation of species was crucial for healthy societies and ecosystems. We must ensure this knowledge remains part of our modern agricultural and food systems to prevent diet-related diseases and reduce the environmental impact of feeding ourselves.</p>
2. Biodiversity Helps Fight Disease.<p>Higher rates of biodiversity have been linked to an increase in human health.</p><p>First, plants are essential for medicines. For example, <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_New_Nature_Economy_Report_2020.pdf" target="_blank">25% of drugs used in modern medicine are derived from rainforest plants</a> while <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_New_Nature_Economy_Report_2020.pdf" target="_blank">70% of cancer drugs are natural or synthetic products inspired by nature</a>. This means that every time a species goes extinct, we miss out on a potential new medicine.</p><p>Second, <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/news.2010.644" target="_blank">biodiversity due to protected natural areas has been linked to lower instances of disease</a> such as Lyme disease and malaria. While the exact origin of the virus causing COVID-19 is still unknown, <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5711306/" target="_blank">60% of infectious diseases originate from animals</a> and <a href="https://sustainabledevelopment.un.org/content/documents/631980-Machalaba-Anthropogenic%20Drivers%20of%20Emerging%20Infectious%20Diseases.pdf" target="_blank">70% of emerging infectious diseases originate from wildlife</a>. As human activities encroach upon the natural world, through deforestation and urbanization, we reduce the size and number of ecosystems. As a result, animals live in closer quarters with one another and with humans, creating ideal conditions for the spread of zoonotic diseases.</p><p>Simply put: <a href="https://www.nature.com/articles/news.2010.644" target="_blank">more species means less disease</a>.</p>
Human activity is eroding biodiversity. World Economic Forum Nature Risk Rising
3. Biodiversity Benefits Business.<p>According to the World Economic Forum's recent <a href="http://www3.weforum.org/docs/WEF_New_Nature_Economy_Report_2020.pdf" target="_blank">Nature Risk Rising Report</a>, more than half of the world's GDP ($44 trillion) is highly or moderately dependent on nature. Many businesses are, therefore, at risk due to increasing nature loss. <a href="https://wwf.panda.org/our_work/biodiversity/protected_areas/arguments_for_protection/goods_services/medicine/" target="_blank">Global sales of pharmaceuticals based on materials of natural origin are worth an estimated $75 billion a year</a>, while natural wonders such as <a href="https://wwf.panda.org/knowledge_hub/all_publications/living_planet_report_2018/" target="_blank">coral reefs are essential to food and tourism.</a></p><p>There is great potential for the economy to grow and become more resilient by ensuring biodiversity. <a href="http://wedocs.unep.org/xmlui/handle/20.500.11822/31813" target="_blank">Every dollar spent on nature restoration leads to at least $9 of economic benefits.</a> In addition, <a href="https://www.foodandlandusecoalition.org/global-report/" target="_blank">changing agricultural and food production methods could unlock $4.5 trillion per year in new business opportunities by 2030</a>, while also preventing trillions of dollars' worth of social and environmental harms.</p>
4. Biodiversity Provides Livelihoods.<p>Humans derive approximately <a href="https://livingplanetindex.org/home/index" target="_blank">$125 trillion of value from natural ecosystems each year</a>. Globally, <a href="http://www.unesco.org/new/en/natural-sciences/environment/water/wwap/wwdr/2016-water-and-jobs/" target="_blank">three out of four jobs</a> are dependent on water while the agricultural sector employs over <a href="https://www.conservation.org/priorities/livelihoods" target="_blank">60% of the world's working poor</a>. In the Global South, forests are the source of livelihoods for <a href="https://www.conservation.org/priorities/livelihoods" target="_blank">over 1.6 billion people</a>. In India, forest ecosystems contribute <a href="https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19915547" target="_blank">only 7% to India's GDP yet 57% of rural Indian communities' livelihoods</a>.</p><p><span></span>Ecosystems, therefore, must be protected and restored – not only for the good of nature but also for the communities that depend on them.</p><p>Although some fear environmental regulation and the safeguarding of nature could threaten businesses, the "restoration economy" – the restoration of natural landscapes – provides more jobs in the United States than most of the extractives sector, with the potential to create even more. According to some estimates, the restoration economy is worth <a href="https://journals.plos.org/plosone/article?id=10.1371/journal.pone.0128339" target="_blank">$25 billion per year and directly employs more than the coal, mining, logging and steel industries altogether</a>. Nature-positive businesses can provide <a href="https://www.greenbiz.com/article/10-things-you-need-know-about-restoration-economy" target="_blank">cost-effective, robot-proof, business-friendly jobs</a> that stimulate the rural economy without harming the environment.</p>
5. Biodiversity Protects Us.<p>Biodiversity makes the earth habitable. Biodiverse ecosystems provide <a href="https://www.nature-basedsolutions.com/" target="_blank">nature-based solutions</a> that buffer us from <a href="https://oceanservice.noaa.gov/facts/coral_protect.html" target="_blank">natural disasters such as floods and storms</a>, <a href="https://digital.iucn.org/water/nature-based-solutions-for-water/" target="_blank">filter our water</a> and <a href="https://www.naturebasedsolutionsinitiative.org/publications/the-superior-effect-of-nature-based-solutions-in-land-management-for-enhancing-ecosystem-services/" target="_blank">regenerate our soils</a>.</p><p>The <a href="https://blogs.worldbank.org/voices/miracle-mangroves-coastal-protection-numbers" target="_blank">clearance of over 35% of the world's mangroves for human activities</a> has increasingly put people and their homes at risk from floods and sea-level rise. If today's mangroves were lost, 18 million more people would be flooded every year (an increase of 39%) and annual damages to property would increase by 16% ($82 billion).</p><p>Protecting and restoring natural ecosystems is vital to fighting climate change. Nature-based solutions could provide <a href="https://www.pnas.org/content/114/44/11645" target="_blank">37% of the cost-effective CO2 mitigation needed by 2030</a> to maintain global warming within 2°C (35.6 F).</p><p>Natural ecosystems provide the foundations for economic growth, human health and prosperity. Our fate as a species is deeply connected to the fate of our natural environment.</p><p>As ecosystems are increasingly threatened by human activity, acknowledging the benefits of biodiversity is the first step in ensuring that we look after it. We know biodiversity matters. Now, as a society, we should protect it – and in doing so, protect our own long-term interests.</p>
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Six years ago, during a global coral bleaching event and after the Port of Miami was dredged, endangered corals on Florida's coral reef began rapidly wasting away and dying. Their "mystery killer," whose exact pathogen still remains unidentified, is referred to as the "Stony Coral Tissue Loss Disease" (SCTLD).
FWC biologist Ananda Ellis uses a hammer and chisel to remove a healthy coral from the reefs off Key West as part of FWC's Coral Rescue Project. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels
FWC biologists Allan Anderson and Ananda Ellis take genetic samples and measurements of rescued corals at an intermediate holding facility. Tiffany Duong / Ocean Rebels
Rescued corals acclimate to life outside of the ocean in an intermediate holding facility before being shipped to longer-term aquaria for safekeeping. Caroline Dennison / University of Miami
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The devastation caused by hurricanes in the Bahamas, Puerto Rico, North Carolina and Houston over the last few years is a direct effect of the climate crisis, which is making tropical storms stronger and wetter, according to a new study from the University of Wisconsin and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), as CNN reported.
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While some are trying to clean up the plastic pollution in the oceans, and others are removing it from beaches, one company is looking to end the need for plastic bottles that last hundreds of years and are rarely recycled. A Dutch company is looking to fight the plastic crisis with a plant-based alternative that degrades in one year, as The Guardian reported.
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As the climate crisis takes hold, the effects are noticed most conspicuously at the extremes like the poles and the desert, where the harsh environments are drastically altered by a changing climate.
By James Renwick
Climate Explained is a collaboration between The Conversation, Stuff and the New Zealand Science Media Centre to answer your questions about climate change.
If you have a question you'd like an expert to answer, please send it to firstname.lastname@example.org
Earth had several periods of high carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere and high temperatures over the last several million years. Can you explain what caused these periods, given that there was no burning of fossil fuels or other sources of human created carbon dioxide release during those times?
Burning fossil fuels or vegetation is one way to put carbon dioxide into the air – and it is something we have become very good at. Humans are generating nearly 40 billion tons of carbon dioxide every year, mostly by burning fossil fuels.
Natural Changes in Carbon Dioxide<p>Every year, carbon dioxide concentrations rise and fall a little as plants grow in spring and summer and die off in the autumn and winter. The timing of this <a href="https://niwa.co.nz/atmosphere/our-data/trace-gas-plots/carbon-dioxide" target="_blank">seasonal rise and fall</a> is tied to northern hemisphere seasons, as most of the land surface on Earth is there.</p><p>The oceans also play an active role in the carbon cycle, contributing to variations over a few months to slow shifts over centuries. Ocean water takes up carbon dioxide directly in an exchange <a href="https://sos.noaa.gov/datasets/ocean-atmosphere-co2-exchange/" target="_blank">between the air and seawater</a>. Tiny marine plants use carbon dioxide for photosynthesis and many microscopic marine organisms use carbon compounds to make shells. When these marine micro-organisms die and sink to the seafloor, they take the carbon with them.</p><p>Collectively, the biosphere (ecosystems on land and in soils) and the oceans are absorbing about <a href="https://worldoceanreview.com/en/wor-1/ocean-chemistry/co2-reservoir/" target="_blank">half of all human-emitted carbon dioxide</a>, and this slows the rate of climate change. But as the climate continues to change and the oceans warm up further, it is not clear whether the biosphere and oceans will continue absorbing such a large fraction of our emissions. As water warms, it is less able to absorb carbon dioxide, and as the climate changes, many ecosystems become stressed and are less able to photosynthesise carbon dioxide.</p>
Earth’s Deep Climate History<p>On time scales of hundreds of thousands to millions of years, carbon dioxide concentrations in the air have varied hugely, and so has global climate.</p><p>This <a href="https://www.skepticalscience.com/weathering.html" target="_blank">long-term carbon cycle</a> involves the formation and decay of the Earth's surface itself: tectonic plate activity, the build-up and weathering of mountain chains, prolonged volcanic activity, and the emergence of new seafloor at active mid-ocean faults.</p><p>Most of the carbon stored in the Earth's crust is in the form of limestone, created from the carbon-based shells of marine organisms that sank to the ocean floor millions of year ago.</p><p>Carbon dioxide is added to the air when volcanoes erupt, and it is taken out of the air as rocks and mountain ranges weather and wear down. These processes typically take millions of years to add or subtract carbon dioxide from the atmosphere.</p>
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For much of human history, it's been hard for scientists to learn about remote areas of the Earth that they cannot observe directly.
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