Visit Your Local PBS Station PBS Home PBS Home Programs A-Z TV Schedules Watch Video Donate Shop PBS Search PBS
NOW on PBS
Civics & Politics The Environment Health Economics Social Issues Full Archive
NOW on Demand
Act NOW
Week of 1.9.09

Our Oceans: What Could Happen
By Jacqueline Savitz

Jacqueline Savitz is a Marine Scientist and Senior Campaign Director of the Climate and Pollution Campaigns for Oceana,a global ocean conservation group.

It's New Year's morning and I'm reflecting on my "to do" list over coffee. I need to plan this year's vacation to Australia to do some snorkeling and diving on the Great Barrier Reef. I also need to pick up groceries for a dinner party. I'm planning to serve salmon and Oysters Rockefeller.

While my list is certainly do-able today, the story could be very different by mid-century if we don't find a way to shift to a low carbon energy economy.

Scientists now predict with a great degree of certainty that unless we switch to a clean energy economy, climate change will result in increased severity and intensity of storms, melting sea ice, rising sea level, changes in food production and drinking water availability and importantly, the acidification of our oceans and a mass extinction of corals.

Sea level rise combined with the increased frequency and intensity of storms, could force many of us to relocate our homes to higher ground. Scientists predict that sea level could rise nearly three feet by the end of the century. And 3.4 million Americans live less than a meter above sea level.

In the oceans, the mass extinction of corals will be well underway by mid-century as ocean waters become more acidic, making it harder for corals to build the skeletons they need to survive. Because many other marine animals depend on corals, the decline of corals will spark a widespread cascade of devastation.

Many different animals will be affected by the depletion of corals. Beautiful reef fish and other colorful sea life that are crucial to tourism depend on corals, and fish higher up in the food chain depend on those smaller fish to live. So tourism and fishery-related jobs will suffer.

Any sea animal that uses calcium carbonate to build its shell or skeleton is also at risk, including lobsters, crabs, mussels, clams and oysters, to name a few.

Then there are the small plankton that serve as "fish food." These tiny animals are the foundation of the food web—all of our major fisheries depend on them. One vulnerable type of plankton, the pteropod or sea butterfly, plays a key role in the food chain since salmon and other fish are highly dependent on pteropods for their food. But pteropods are in real danger of extinction due to ocean acidification.

Sadly, by New Year's morning 2050, it may be too late to see the Great Barrier Reef since climate change may cause the reef to be overtaken by algae, and it's unlikely that it would be worth the trip.

My dinner menu might also be radically different. Salmon stocks may have been depleted by declines in pteropods and other plankton. And even if oysters can overcome the pressures of overfishing and diseases caused by pollution, their calcium carbonate shells make them vulnerable to acidification. Oystermen, like many other fishermen, may be out of a job.

But here's a happier scenario. It's New Year's Day, 2050. As I gaze out the window of my waterfront home, I see a distant wind farm on the horizon and breathe a sigh of relief. The "clean energy economy" we built in the early part of the century freed us from our dependence on coal and oil, cut our carbon emissions by 80 to 95 percent and prevented the worst impacts of climate change. Wars over food, water and oil were avoided, and the reefs and all the species that depend on them are recovering nicely.

I'm grateful that back in 2009 we realized that the oceans were at a tipping point and that our own futures were threatened, so we finally put the right things on our global to-do list.

 
WEB FEATURES
Sea Change

Our Oceans: What Could Happen


PROGRAM RESOURCES
Podcast
Buy a DVD
Contact Us



RELATED REPORTS
Topics search results will display here.