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An Extinction Timeline and How We Can Alter It

In 2017 on a dive trip to Cuba my friend Manny Ramos took me to what he said was one of the best snorkeling beaches in the country three hours outside Havana at Puerto Escondido. Fallen trees from Hurricane Irma still blocked the limestone road to this crystal-clear cove that let out to aquamarine and deeper cobalt blue depths.

When I entered the water, however, I was greeted by a coral graveyard, similar to others I’ve witnessed in Florida, Fiji, and Australia. Along with broken branching and fan corals from the storm, there were algae covered rock where the overly hot water of the Florida Straits – that helped supercharge that hurricane season - contributed to the bleaching death of 90 percent of the cove’s hard corals. Manny had left the water moments after we’d entered. “I couldn’t stay in there. I’m so sad,” he told me. “You should have been here two years ago. There were so many fish, it was so colorful.” Globally half the world’s corals have died off in the last half-century with a majority of the rest expected to disappear before 2100. That’s less than the blink of an eye in geological time.

The ocean is almost 4 billion years old, just half a billion years younger than the formation of our planet. Fast forward 3,997.5 million years and…

During the past 2.5 million years, the period in which half a dozen known species of humans emerged, the ocean has risen and fallen by hundreds of feet like a steady heartbeat but otherwise remained fairly stable biologically. It’s spawned the expansion of coral reefs, mangrove and kelp habitats, older and deeper geothermal vent communities and many other natural spaces and species still familiar to us today. These include bony fish, shellfish, sharks, sea turtles and other marine wildlife that’s been here since the dinosaurs were the coming thing.

In the last 10,000 years, when Homo sapiens emerged as the only human species left, the seas have been a source of both protein, exploration and wonder, full of “great beasts and serpents” including the leviathans, the great whales, whose oil became the light and lubricant of the Industrial age that began in the 18th century.

But it’s only since the 20th century as human technology and population exploded, powered by the fossil and radioactive remains of earlier ages, that the ocean, covering over 70 percent of the planet’s surface and making up more than 95 percent of its living habitat has undergone massive changes that before human interventions might have taken tens of millions of years to occur.

These changes include the rapid decline of marine wildlife, including 90 percent of the largest open-ocean fish and loss of vital habitats such as salt marshes and seagrass meadows that act as the nurseries of the ocean.

And it’s only in the last 50 years since I was watching ‘Sea Hunt’ and Jacque Cousteau Specials on T.V. that human activity has measurably changed the physical nature of the world ocean: its circulation, temperature, chemistry, and color.

The only comparable near instantaneous planetary phenomena was a massive meteor strike 66 million years ago that took out almost all life on earth, largely sterilizing the seas. Today we humans have taken on the role both of the meteor – generating the planet’s sixth global extinction pulse - and the last planetary defense system, being nature made conscious but not yet conscious enough to act as good stewards of our home waters.

The prospects for restoring our blue planet’s biological balances are difficult to measure. In part, this is because humans are not actual apex predators in that we do not maintain ecosystem stability the way wolves do in the forests or sharks in the ocean. We are more analogous to mosquitoes in that science has yet to establish any clear role we play in maintaining the evolutionary web of life (bats can eat other insects, bears can survive without our picnic baskets). At the same time, like our mammalian and avian relatives the raccoons and ravens we are a very ‘weedy’ species, skilled omnivores adaptive to almost every environmental condition and so likely to survive many of our own most detrimental impacts.

Just as the everlasting sea will endure but perhaps in a warmer less oxygenated state friendlier to jellies and microbial mats than bony fish and mammals, we might also survive but fail to thrive if we continue on our present path. But a sudden course correction still remains an option.

Just as the five years after the December 7, 1941, Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor totally mobilized U.S. society in a way that defeated the global threat of Fascism and determined the makeup of the Post-war world, the next 11 years may determine the future level of security or lack thereof for humans and other species across our planet.

In 2018, the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, made up of the world’s leading scientists in the field, warned that global carbon emissions have to be cut by at least forty-five percent by 2030 if there’s any hope of keeping planetary warming at a dangerous but less than catastrophic level.

One response to this global warning and red alert was the recent launching of the Green New Deal that calls for a rapid transition to non-carbon renewable energy with a strong focus on the links between the environment, economy, and equity as the way to implement it. This was first proposed in the form of a congressional resolution by Senator Ed Markey (D MA) and Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D NY) and has quickly brought the climate crisis front and center in the national debate over policy directions and in the lead-up to the 2020 U.S. elections.

As each of us seeks to find our own way to act as responsible humans and practitioners of the precautionary principle, “first, do no harm,” my ocean conservation organization Blue Frontier teamed up with the Center for the Blue Economy at the Middlebury Institute for International Studies in Monterey California to launch an Ocean and Coastal Climate Action plan.

Our report, published in the environmental science news journal Mongabay outlines eight priorities for making the coasts and ocean more resilient. We call for a complete reformation of the National Flood Insurance Program (NFIP), major coastal infrastructure investment with a focus on protection and restoration of natural barriers and coastal habitats, new guidelines and systems for expanding offshore renewable energy production, new forms of assistance to ports and fishing communities, a network of marine protected areas like National Parks in the sea, increased aquaculture investment, and a revised National Disaster Recovery Framework, including creation of a new combatant command within the Department of Defense. Here is the link to the full proposal that is now being distributed to policymakers and others.

Growing activism, particularly youth activism, around climate, including recognition of our role in the natural world, as well as the rapid market signals favoring solar, wind and other clean carbon-free energy technologies gives us some cautionary hope that a rapid course correction has begun. To keep a true bearing, however, will require nothing less than the personal dedication of millions of citizens. Citizens who see the approaching and ongoing disaster we’re living in as a time to commit, in the words of our founders, our lives, fortunes and sacred honor to protecting our blue marble planet from the great historical and existential threats we now face from sea to shining sea.

Story by David Helvarg

David is an author and Executive Director of Blue Frontier, an ocean conservation and policy group

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