Thursday, 7 July 2011

Fears of mass extinction surface after study of ocean degradation

An expert group of scientists has warned of mass extinction 'unlike anything human history has ever seen' if the degradation of the oceans is not stopped. In their preliminary report from the International Programme on the State of the Ocean (IPSO)- the first interdisciplinary international group to analyse the combined effect of all stressors hitting oceanic ecology-  scientists spoke plainly.  “The findings are shocking," said IPSO's Scientific Director Dr. Alex Rogers. "This is a very serious situation demanding unequivocal action at every level. We are looking at consequences for humankind that will impact in our lifetime."
IPSO examined the collective influence of major stressors on the oceans, including pollution, warming, acidification, overfishing and hypoxia- oxygen deficiency. They now say that the degeneration in the oceans is happening much faster than predicted; this is creating the conditions that have been associated with all major extinctions in the planet's history. The group adds that- for a start- marine extinction is 'inevitable' unless things change dramatically.

IPSO's report complements other recent studies that have greatly alarmed environmentalists. The journal Nature went a step beyond the IPSO report, saying that the first man-made extinction could be already underway and would not reverse unless humans made 'significant changes to their behaviour'. 

Other scientists said recently that this year's "dead zone" (caused by low or no oxygen in the ocean) in the northern Gulf of Mexico will be the largest in history- around 9000 square miles- because of fertiliser carried out with the Mississippi flows. Nutrients in the fertiliser promote algae that consume the oxygen in the water, an annual occurrence. Fish, shrimp and many other species perish unless they escape the dead zone. Analysts point out that the Deepwater Horizon spill - 19 times that from the Exxon Valdez- has complicated matters even further.

Then, oysters and corals are disappearing from our oceans. A BioScience study claims that oysters are already "functionally extinct," as 85 percent of their reefs have been destroyed through disease or over-harvesting. This means that oysters no longer play any significant role in the ecosystems, and they are on the road to complete extinction. Another study from 'The World Resources Institute' says that all of the world's coral reefs could be gone in forty years, by 2050. 500 million people's livelihoods worldwide would be threatened if this happens, not least because coastlines would lose protection from storms.

"Threats on land, along the coast and in the water are converging in a perfect storm of threats to reefs," says Jane Lubchenco of the US' Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

IPSO scientists want UN intervention and a regime of "effective governance of the High Seas." The report also calls for an immediate reduction of CO2 emissions, coordinated efforts to restore marine ecosystems and universal implementation so "activities proceed only if they are shown not to harm the ocean singly or in combination with other activities."            
                                                       
Three quarters of all animal species were destroyed in five previous mass extinctions in the past 540 million years. Although we seem to be on track for the sixth, not all is lost yet. However, Dan Laffoley, one of the authors of the report, is unambiguous about the urgent need for change. "The time to protect the blue heart of our planet is now, today and urgent," he says.

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