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5 Things to Know About the State of Our Oceans for World Oceans Day

Oceans
Tropical fish and turtle swim in the Red Sea, Egypt, an inlet of the Indian Ocean. vlad61 / iStock / Getty Images Plus

Saturday, June 8 is World Oceans Day, a chance to honor and celebrate our blue planet. Ocean lovers around the world will attend beach cleanings and other events or join a March for the Ocean to call for an end to activities that harm marine life, like offshore oil drilling and plastic pollution.


The oceans generate most of the oxygen we breathe, provide food and medicine and help keep our climate stable, according to the day's organizers. They are also home to amazing animals and ecosystems, like whales and coral reefs, that make the earth a more wondrous place to live. But the world's marine environments face unprecedented threats. Here are five things to know about the state of our oceans in 2019.

1. Ocean Plastics Are on the Rise

It's well-known that eight million metric tons of plastics enter the world's oceans every year. But a study published in April gave new insight into how plastic pollution has proliferated in the past six decades. Researchers found that equipment used to collect plankton had increasingly been disrupted by plastic since it first got entangled with fishing gear in 1957.

"The message is that marine plastic has increased significantly and we are seeing it all over the world, even in places where you would not want to, like the Northwest Passage and other parts of the Arctic," Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, England researcher Clare Ostle told The Guardian.

2. Plastic Pollution Threatens Marine Oxygen Production

All that plastic floating in the ocean kills one million birds and more than 100,000 marine mammals every year, according to the UK government. But a study published in May found it could have a disturbing impact on some of the ocean's smallest life forms as well. Scientists exposed the ocean's most abundant photosynthetic bacteria to chemicals that leach from plastic bags. The chemicals made it harder for the bacteria to grow and produce oxygen. This is scary because these bacteria are responsible for 10 percent of the oxygen we breathe.

"This study revealed a new and unanticipated danger of plastic pollution," paper co-author and Macquarie University research fellow Lisa Moore told The Independent.

3. Global Warming Is Already Putting Fish in Hot Water

The oceans and the creatures in them are also threatened by climate change, and a groundbreaking study published in March found that rising ocean temperatures are already shrinking fish populations. A University of Rutgers-led team discovered that sustainable fish populations had declined by an average of 4.1 percent over 80 years. That might not sound like a lot, but it actually amounts to 1.4 million metric tons of fish lost between 1930 and 2010. And in some regions the decline was more extreme: sustainable fish populations fell by 34 percent in the northeast Atlantic and 35 percent in the Sea of Japan.

"We were stunned to find that fisheries around the world have already responded to ocean warming," study co-author and Rutgers' Department of Ecology, Evolution, and Natural Resources associate professor Malin Pinsky told Rutgers Today. "These aren't hypothetical changes sometime in the future."

4. Marine Heatwaves Act Like Underwater Wildfires

Ocean warming doesn't just damage individual species. It devastates entire ecosystems. A first-of-its-kind study published in March found that the number of ocean heat wave days per year is surging: The number has increased by more than 50 percent between two 29-year time chunks compared by the scientists. This has particularly harmed coral reefs in the Caribbean, Australian sea-grass beds and California's kelp forests.

"You have heatwave-induced wildfires that take out huge areas of forest, but this is happening underwater as well," lead author Dan Smale at the Marine Biological Association in Plymouth, UK told The Guardian. "You see the kelp and seagrasses dying in front of you. Within weeks or months they are just gone, along hundreds of kilometres of coastline."

5. Ocean Acidification Makes Life Even Harder for Coral Reefs

Marine heat waves threaten coral reefs by causing coral bleaching, in which corals expel the algae that give them color and nutrients. But the greenhouse gasses we are pumping into the atmosphere also endanger coral in another way. They cause ocean acidification, which is what happens when carbon dioxide dissolves in seawater and changes its chemical makeup. This reduces the amount of calcium carbonate that animals like corals use to repair themselves after stressful events like bleachings. In research published just last week, scientists found that some corals and algae they studied were not able to adapt to more acidic waters. This could alter the composition and function of reefs.

"We found that corals and coralline algae weren't able to acclimatize to ocean acidification," study author Malcolm McCulloch said.

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Protestors marched outside the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on Monday, August 26, during the MTV Video and Music Awards to bring attention to the water crisis currently gripping the city. Karla Ann Cote / NurPhoto / Getty Images

By Will Sarni

It is far too easy to view scarcity and poor quality of water as issues solely affecting emerging economies. While the images of women and children fetching water in Africa and a lack of access to water in India are deeply disturbing, this is not the complete picture.

The city of Flint, Michigan, where dangerous levels of pollutants contaminated the municipal water supply, is a case in point — as is, more recently, the city of Newark, New Jersey.

The Past is No Longer a Guide to the Future

We get ever closer to "day zeros" — the point at when municipal water supplies are switched off — and tragedies such as Flint. These are not isolated stories. Instead they are becoming routine, and the public sector and civil society are scrambling to address them. We are seeing "day zeros" in South Africa, India, Australia and elsewhere, and we are now detecting lead contamination in drinking water in cities across the U.S.

"Day zero" is the result of water planning by looking in the rear-view mirror. The past is no longer a guide to the future; water demand has outstripped supplies because we are tied to business-as-usual planning practices and water prices, and this goes hand-in-hand with the inability of the public sector to factor the impacts of climate change into long-term water planning. Lead in drinking water is the result of lead pipe service lines that have not been replaced and in many cases only recently identified by utilities, governments and customers. An estimated 22 million people in the US are potentially using lead water service lines. This aging infrastructure won't repair or replace itself.

One of the most troubling aspects of the global water crisis is that those least able to afford access to water are also the ones who pay a disproportionately high percentage of their income for it. A report by WaterAid revealed that a standard water bill in developed countries is as little as 0.1 percent of the income of someone earning the minimum wage, while in a country like Madagascar a person reliant on a tanker truck for their water supply would spend as much as 45 percent of their daily income on water to get just the recommended daily minimum supply. In Mozambique, families relying on black-market vendors will spend up to 100 times as much on water as those reached by government-subsidized water supplies.

Finally, we need to understand that the discussion of a projected gap between supply and demand is misleading. There is no gap, only poor choices around allocation. The wealthy will have access to water, and the poor will pay more for water of questionable quality. From Flint residents using bottled water and paying high water utility rates, to the poor in South Africa waiting in line for their allocation of water — inequity is everywhere.

Water Inequity Requires Global Action — Now.

These troubling scenarios beg the obvious question: What to do? We do know that ongoing reports on the 'water crisis' are not going to catalyze action to address water scarcity, poor quality, access and affordability. Ensuring the human right to water feels distant at times.

We need to mobilize an ecosystem of stakeholders to be fully engaged in developing and scaling solutions. The public sector, private sector, NGOs, entrepreneurs, investors, academics and civil society must all be engaged in solving water scarcity and quality problems. Each stakeholder brings unique skills, scale and speed of impact (for example, entrepreneurs are fast but lack scale, while conversely the public sector is slow but has scale).

We also urgently need to change how we talk about water. We consistently talk about droughts happening across the globe — but what we are really dealing with is an overallocation of water due to business-as-usual practices and the impacts of climate change.

We need to democratize access to water data and actionable information. Imagine providing anyone with a smartphone the ability to know, on a real-time basis, the quality of their drinking water and actions to secure safe water. Putting this information in the hands of civil society instead or solely relying on centralized regulatory agencies and utilities will change public policies.

Will Sarni is the founder and CEO of Water Foundry.

Note: This post also appears on the World Economic Forum.

Reposted with permission from our media associate Circle of Blue.

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