Losing Nemo: Is there time to save the seas?

The ocean is acidifying and coral reefs are dying. And it will only get worse until we rein in our emissions

Orca (Orcinus orca),

(Art Wolfe)

Frank Pope

The glistening back of a whale sends ripples across the surface of the Arctic Ocean. Terns wheel overhead, while in the crisp, clear water beneath, tiny translucent sea snails flap their feet like butterfly wings against a shimmering backdrop of fish. The ocean is boundless, timeless and about as far away from Man as it’s possible to get. But not far enough.

The waters of the Arctic are changing faster than anywhere else on the planet. Glaciers are melting ever quicker and the sea ice is retreating, but these are only the physical effects of the fumes pouring from humanity’s smokestack. Our emissions are shifting the ocean’s chemistry too, and the combination is shaking the very foundations of its biology.

Just as ocean currents encircle the world, so too will these transformations. By mid-century the reefs shielding the Maldives will be eroding faster than they can grow. And out beyond the reefs’ ash-grey remains, a still more sinister threat will be reaching up from the depths.

Standing on a clifftop gazing out at the wild sea, it’s easy to feel the ocean’s power to recharge. Marine life is at once the lungs and the kidneys of the planet, providing half its oxygen, recycling its nutrients and absorbing its waste. Take a deep breath of that fresh sea air, and your chest swells with the scent of ocean life.

If the UN summit in Copenhagen ends with more half-hearted commitments, come the middle of the century you — and the other 80 per cent of the world’s population who live within 100km of the coast — had better think twice before drinking in that sea breeze. The characteristic scent is the product of microscopic, surface-dwelling plankton, but rival species are on the rise. A lungful of their fragrance leaves not the feeling of freedom but toxic irritation.

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