The year is over, ladies and gentlemen. And what a year it was. We passed some major environmental milestones (COP21, the Clean Power Plan, the Pope’s climate change encyclical) and waded through plenty of environmental disasters (bomb trains, oil spills and species extinction). As we push onward into 2016, Planet Experts looks back at the stories we reported on and brings you the very best and worst of the year. Without further ado, here are the Seven Worst Things to Happen to the Ocean in 2015.
7) Dead Zones Were Discovered in the Atlantic Ocean.
In February, a study published in the journal Global Change Biology predicted that climate change will cause the number of ocean dead zones to increase. A few months later, marine biologists reported on the first-ever observed dead zones in the Atlantic Ocean. Unlike dead zones formed from toxic algal blooms, the Atlantic zones were the result of large, underwater cyclones that can spin for months. Propagating westward off the West African coast, the cyclones rapidly deplete the oxygen content in their core. Researchers warn that this can flood coasts with low-oxygen water, putting severe stress on coastal ecosystems.
6) Corals Are Eating Plastic, and That’s Not Good
If we just told you that corals on the Great Barrier Reef are eating plastic, you might be fooled into thinking that’s a good thing. There are some 269,000 tons of microplastic floating in the ocean, so perhaps coral are helping to filter it out. That’s a logical assumption. Unfortunately, plastic doesn’t biodegrade, and it doesn’t go away. In this study, researchers discover that corals will suck up plastic particles in the water, but those particles will then lodge inside the corals’ digestive tissue, potentially interfering with their normal feeding.
5) Fish Are Diving Deeper to Escape Ocean Warming
Did you know that the ocean absorbs 90 percent of the planet’s global warming heat? It’s one of the reasons why, despite the mountains of carbon dioxide we pump into the air every day, the planet has only heated about one degree, on average, per century. There are many side-effects to this process, but one of them is that the behaviors of marine species are changing. Case in point, the Redthroat emperor fish. According to scientists at James Cook University, these fish are “shifting their position in the water column to remain at a preferred temperature.” In other words, as their days get warmer, these fish are diving deeper than they traditionally do. This is a trend that will likely continue as the planet heats up. Unfortunately for those of us on land, we won’t be able to adapt in the same way.
4) Sea Levels Could Rise Higher (and Faster) Than We Thought
In July, former NASA scientist James Hansen gave the planet some bad news: Sea levels could rise at least 10 feet in just 50 years. Sea levels have already risen an average of 20 centimeters since the beginning of the 20th century. If the planet continues to warm at its current rate, glacial melt in Greenland and Antarctica could accelerate by tenfold, generating a feedback loop of cool water entering the ocean and forcing warmer, saltier water up and underneath ice sheets, accelerating their melt rates in turn and the volume of cool water entering the ocean. Researchers say this could happen before the end of this century.
“Social disruption and economic consequences of such large sea level rise could be devastating,” said Hansen. “It is not difficult to imagine that conflicts arising from forced migrations and economic collapse might make the planet ungovernable, threatening the fabric of civilization.”
3) The Gulf Still Hasn’t Recovered From the BP Oil Spill
Five years ago, the Deepwater Horizon oil disaster spewed 210 million gallons of crude oil into the Gulf of Mexico. The ecosystems and communities affected by the spill are far from recovered, and it is unclear if they will ever be. In April, the National Wildlife Federation published its annual report on the situation. Some of the findings: Dolphins are dying at four times their historic rates; up to 65,000 Kemp’s ridley sea turtles are estimated to have died since 2010; twelve percent of brown pelicans and 32 percent of the laughing gulls in the area are estimated to have died; coral colonies throughout the Gulf still show significant oil damage.
2) Cod Populations Have Declined 90 Percent in Just 30 Years
Since 1982, the population of cod in the Gulf of Maine has declined by 90 percent. Currently, the population is at three to four percent of what a well-managed stock should be. “The giant cod catches of yesteryear are over — these poor fish have been exploited to commercial extinction,” said Catherine Kilduff of the Center for Biological Diversity
1) Half of the Ocean’s Life Has Been Extinguished
It seems impossible. The ocean covers three-quarters of the planet’s surface and is bursting with biodiversity. The smallest drop can be packed with microorganisms, a square mile can be filled with creatures of extraordinary size. And yet nearly half of the marine vertebrate population has vanished. According to the Living Blue Planet Report, a bi-annual analysis published by the World Wildlife Fund, marine populations are down 49 percent since 1970. Overfishing and climate change are regarded as the two leading factors in species decline. On land, things aren’t doing much better. Last year, the WWF found that 52 percent of land-based animals (excluding insects) has either died or been killed off.
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