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NftP Climate News: The oceans are warming but there’s reason for hope

Written by Stuart Cumner

February 18, 2020

I was raised in a coastal town in Suffolk, England. The North Sea that had provided sea passage for the Anglo-Saxons boat discovered in the recently released film, “The Dig”, gave me great delight as a boy as I gazed into its tide pools. The amazing diversity of life I found helped fuel my interest in the natural world and steered my career. That was in the 1960s when carbon dioxide levels were around 300 ppm. Now, when I go back, in these 400+ ppm days, I find much less life in the tidepools. I started diving in the 1970s and was thrilled at seeing pristine coral reefs. For the past twenty years I have seen their decline, with climate change related coral bleaching being the main problem. The combination of greenhouse gases (ghg) causing higher ocean temperatures and increased ocean acidification have made it increasingly difficult for corals to survive.

In this week’s column, I’ll take a look at a recent report that highlights record breaking ocean temperatures in 2020 and the impact this will have on human and natural systems. Next, I’ll look at how shark embryo development is being affected by increasing ocean temperatures and we’ll see how some corals are adapting to this same ocean temperature rise. Also included this week is a quick look at: a method for storing renewable energy without batteries, Bill Gates’ recent climate change book, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have And The Breakthroughs We Need, and a suggestion for great audio book listening.

Despite a dip in global emissions last year, the oceans continued to get warmer, a recent report indicates. Covering 70% of our planet, oceans absorb 90% of the heat produced as a result of greenhouse gases. Thirteen institutes, globally, looked at temperatures in ocean waters down to 2000 metres. They found the additional heat absorbed by our oceans in 2020 “could boil 1.3 billion kettles, each containing 1.5 liters of water.” They also found a change in ocean salinity patterns caused by surface waters warming more than deeper waters, changes that could also harm ocean ecosystems. Since oceans have a central role in weather, rising ocean temperatures are affecting the severity of weather events. Everything from increased storm activity to droughts, floods and wildfires are exacerbated.

While recognising that dropping ghg production will take, due to a delayed response, decades to have an impact in the oceans, I am encouraged by the fact that researchers noted that the changes are not, currently, irreversible. But time is running out and greater action is needed by governments, businesses and individuals. Anything that we do to reduce our carbon footprint, by lowering ghg levels, will help our ailing oceans.

A recent piece of research has shown that baby shark development is being affected by warmer ocean temperatures. The higher temperatures are causing sharks to use up their yolk supply, within egg cases, faster. As a result they are smaller and undernourished when hatched and less able to survive. Shark populations have been hard hit over the years. As predators they are important in helping to keep ecosystems healthy. If I see a shark on a dive these days, I feel extremely fortunate. They are beautifully adapted creatures. Peter Benchley, the author of Jaws, expressed his regret for writing a book that affected the way people looked at sharks and helped bring about their demise.

But all is not doom and gloom in ocean news. A team of researchers has found that some corals are able to survive rising ocean temperatures better than others - and it all comes down to the structure of lipids in the membranes of algae that share their cells. When oceans warm, typically, corals lose their colourful symbiotic algae - they bleach. Some corals have algae constructed of membranes with lipids that are better able to withstand warming. The algae remain inside the coral’s cells - the coral does not bleach. This is good news for coral conservation.

So you want to store energy from renewable sources but you can’t wait for battery technology to catch up; how do you proceed? Quebec has one solution; store the energy in a hydroelectric dam. Cutting back on hydroelectric power at times of the day when wind and solar power are available would be the equivalent of storing renewable energy in the water held back by a dam. With this in mind it looks like it’s full steam ahead on the Innu wind project. The extra energy Quebec will produce and store can be exported to other provinces and the United States.

Alternatively, in the U.K., they are looking to store solar and wind energy, using the electricity they generate, to raise water to the top of a hill. The stored energy in the water would later be turned into electricity as it is released and turns turbines on its way down the hill. Making the water denser by adding minerals would allow the same amount of energy to be stored in a shorter hill. Another possibility to store electricity being investigated in the U.K., is to turn old mine shafts into electricity storage devices. One model suggests twelve thousand tonne loads could be electrically winched up unused mine shafts using renewable energy. The stored energy could then be used to produce electricity by turning turbines, at a later time, when renewable energy was not available.

This week Bill Gates book, How To Avoid A Climate Disaster: The Solutions We Have And The Breakthroughs We Need, will be hitting bookshelves. The Guardian’s review looks at the book and interviews the Microsoft founder and former world’s richest man about how he sees the climate change battle unfolding. Bill Gates spends seven million dollars a year carbon offsetting his addiction to private jets while pondering green alternatives for the high ghg producing cement and steel industries. He says, “The scale of the [climate] threat is so all-encompassing, so demanding of radical changes to transport, buildings, industry, land use and political will, that there is no single breakthrough that can solve all those things”.

Finally, I have thoroughly enjoyed listening to David Attenborough’s audio book, A Life On Our Planet, on my daily walks. Attenborough’s early years, travels and concerns and solutions about the climate crisis are all comprehensively covered in this October 2020 release, an accompaniment to the video of the same name. The audiobook is enhanced by the fact that it is read by the author. I borrowed a copy of the audio book from my local library through the Libby app.

Hope everyone is staying healthy. The first signs of Spring should be just around the corner!

About the Author

Stuart Cumner has been a Science and Biology teacher for close to 40 years. He is a member of Markham’s Environmental Advisory Committee, Drawdown Markham and Seeds to Saplings.

About NftP Climate News

The goal of NftP Climate News articles is to highlight 3 to 4 recent news articles on climate change. We want to provide a brief summary to help our members stay up to date on what’s happening climate-wise. Although there can sometimes be a lot of bad news, we are striving to balance this out by including at least one piece of good news.

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