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

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

A plume of smoke from wildfires burning in the Angeles National Forest is seen from downtown Los Angeles on Aug. 29, 2009 in Los Angeles, California. Kevork Djansezian / Getty Images

California is bracing for rare January wildfires this week amid damaging Santa Ana winds coupled with unusually hot and dry winter weather.

High winds, gusting up to 80- to 90 miles per hour in some parts of the state, are expected to last through Wednesday evening. Nearly the entire state has been in a drought for months, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, which, alongside summerlike temperatures, has left vegetation dry and flammable.

Utilities Southern California Edison and PG&E, which serves the central and northern portions of the state, warned it may preemptively shut off power to hundreds of thousands of customers to reduce the risk of electrical fires sparked by trees and branches falling on live power lines. The rare January fire conditions come on the heels of the worst wildfire season ever recorded in California, as climate change exacerbates the factors causing fires to be more frequent and severe.

California is also experiencing the most severe surge of COVID-19 cases since the beginning of the pandemic, with hospitals and ICUs over capacity and a stay-at-home order in place. Wildfire smoke can increase the risk of adverse health effects due to COVID, and evacuations forcing people to crowd into shelters could further spread the virus.

As reported by AccuWeather:

In the atmosphere, air flows from high to low pressure. The setup into Wednesday is like having two giant atmospheric fans working as a team with one pulling and the other pushing the air in the same direction.
Normally, mountains to the north and east of Los Angeles would protect the downtown which sits in a basin. However, with the assistance of the offshore storm, there will be areas of gusty winds even in the L.A. Basin. The winds may get strong enough in parts of the basin to break tree limbs and lead to sporadic power outages and sparks that could ignite fires.
"Typically, Santa Ana winds stay out of downtown Los Angeles and the L.A. Basin, but this time, conditions may set up just right to bring 30- to 40-mph wind gusts even in those typically calm condition areas," said AccuWeather Senior Meteorologist Mike Doll.

For a deeper dive:

AP, LA Times, San Francisco Chronicle, Washington Post, Weather Channel, AccuWeather, New York Times, Slideshow: New York Times; Climate Signals Background: Wildfires, 2020 Western wildfire season

For more climate change and clean energy news, you can follow Climate Nexus on Twitter and Facebook, sign up for daily Hot News, and visit their news site, Nexus Media News.

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