“May you live in interesting times” is an ancient Chinese curse, made all the more effective, one imagines, by being so nicely understated. The full extent of the catastrophe that might befall the victim is left to their imagination.
Some, perhaps even many, might say we are currently living in the sort of “interesting times” that would meet the requirements of the curse, with real or potential, world-changing catastrophe shaping up or already running amok on several fronts.
Some of it gets plenty of news coverage, more than enough, you might say. The whole world has the proverbial ringside seat to the decline and fall of a great democracy, and the real threat that poses for every living soul on earth, and future generations. Vast news resources, traditional and new, are focussed on one madman’s every troubling word, tweeted or otherwise.
Meanwhile, other urgently important news gets nowhere near the attention it needs and deserves. It appears somewhere below the actual and virtual fold in the headlines for a day or so, before being relegated to the archival back pages, out of mass-public sight, and mind.
That appears to be the routine fate of news reports about the latest studies into the unfolding effects of global warming and climate change. Such studies invariably express an urgent need for the world to take action to stop it from happening, or else “interesting times” shall be the inevitable consequence.
Such was the case again with coverage of the results of an “analysis” of declining oxygen levels in vast areas of the open oceans, as well as coastal areas. It was co-authored by 22 scientists and published early this month in the journal Science.
“In the past 50 years, the amount of water in the open ocean with zero oxygen has gone up more than fourfold. In coastal water bodies, including estuaries and seas, low-oxygen sites have increased more than 10-fold since 1950,” the Smithsonian Environmental Research Center said in a Jan. 4 press release.
“Scientists expect oxygen to continue dropping even outside these zones as Earth warms. To halt the decline, the world needs to rein in both climate change and nutrient pollution, (the) international team of scientists asserted,” the release said.
It quoted Denise Breitburg, marine ecologist with the Smithsonian center and lead author of the study: “Oxygen is fundamental to life in the oceans. The decline in ocean oxygen ranks among the most serious effects of human activities on the Earth’s environment.”
“Climate change is the key culprit in the open ocean,” the press release explained. “Warming surface waters make it harder for oxygen to reach the ocean interior. Furthermore, as the ocean as a whole gets warmer, it holds less oxygen. In coastal waters, excess nutrient pollution from land creates algal blooms, which drain oxygen as they die and decompose. In an unfortunate twist, animals also need more oxygen in warmer waters, even as it is disappearing.”
Canada’s Gulf of St. Lawrence is one of the coastal areas where oxygen levels at lower depths are dropping, by 55 per cent since 1930.
Denis Gilbert, a scientist with Canada’s Department of Fisheries and Oceans, was a co-author of the study.
“All animals need to breathe oxygen and we know that regions of the ocean that are losing oxygen are becoming more and more common. We’re seeing the marine animals leaving those areas,” he told the CBC.
“The low oxygen problem is the biggest unknown climate change consequence out there,” said Lisa Levin, a study co-author and professor of biological oceanography at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. She was quoted in an Associated Press article.
“This is a problem we can solve,” Breitburg told The Guardian, about coastal areas where the main cause of oxygen depletion is pollution from human activity. She pointed to recoveries in Chesapeake Bay in the U.S. and the Thames river in the U.K., where better farm and sewage practices led to dead zones disappearing.
But Robert Diaz at the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, who reviewed the new study, said, “right now, the increasing expansion of coastal dead zones and decline in open ocean oxygen are not priority problems for governments around the world. Unfortunately, it will take severe and persistent mortality of fisheries for the seriousness of low oxygen to be realised.”
The speed of ocean “suffocation” already being seen is “breathtaking,” Diaz said. “No other variable of such ecological importance to coastal ecosystems has changed so drastically in such a short period of time from human activities as dissolved oxygen.”
He said the need for urgent action is best summarised by the motto of the American Lung Association: “If you can’t breathe, nothing else matters.”
He was of course referring to fish and other sea creatures who need to get their life-giving oxygen from ocean water.
But, in a very vital sense, all life on Earth, depends on living oceans, not oxygen-depleted, “dead” ones.
There must have been a time when the oceans seemed limitless. It surely says something about the extent of the damage irresponsible human activity, and foolishness, is causing if even the oceans are dying because of it.
(I went to Owen Sound today to help my youngest daughter “Lily” take possession of a modest little house she has just bought there. She is full of hope. If only everyone had such a spirit, I find myself thinking. As I arrived home later in Hope Ness, near Hope Bay, in the midst of the Hope Bay Nature Reserve I looked to the eastern horizon and saw it glowing with a soft, mauve light. Strange, I thought, and then looked to the west where the sun was setting behind scattered clouds and saw the same mauve glow, only brighter and more expansive.
What a lovely moment, I thought. Just now, recalling it, I was glad I hadn’t taken a photo. I hope you understand why. But the colour, was lovely and, to my mind, hopeful.
So, I give you this flower, Lily’s flower, as a token of my hope for her, for you, and for the future as we work our way through these “interesting times” in that spirit.
And I send you this too: a great artist playing great, and hopeful music. Enjoy.
A version of this post was originally published in The Sun Times in January, 2018