Friday, December 11, 2015

Oceans May Be Left Out of Climate Plan, But Here’s What’s at Stake

© Boris Horvat
Troubles in the Mediterranean and potential fixes in the Seychelles show why the world’s seas need more attention during the climate negotiations.

By Craig Welch, National Geographic

MARSEILLE, France —Out Thierry Perez's office window, past the crumbling 16th century island prison where Alexandre Dumas set the "Count of Monte Cristo," roils a Mediterranean Sea that didn't exist just a few decades ago.

Major disease outbreaks worsened by warming waters now strike sea life five times more than when Perez, a marine ecologist with the French government, began studying the Mediterranean in the 1990s. Water temperatures have risen two to three times faster than across the world’s oceans at large. Half of the Mediterranean's fish are pushing north, with wrasses and barracuda once native to North Africa now common off southern France.

Yet just four hours away by train, international climate negotiators in Paris have been reluctant to even mention oceans in their formal blueprints outlining an action plan for combating global warming. With so much division over how to curb greenhouse gas emissions from deforestation and the burning of coal oil and gas, few global leaders were willing to add something else for 195 battle-weary countries to squabble about.

Ocean scientists streamed into France anyway, coming from around the world to insist the seas get more attention in the United Nations climate strategy. The marine world is too important to overlook, they say, both as a victim of climate change but also as place that can be part of the fix.

"We need to put oceans on the agenda," Vladimir Ryabinin, a Russian marine scientist and executive secretary of UNESCO's Intergovernmental Oceanographic Commission, told a panel of researchers in Paris. "Oceans are the common heritage of all mankind."

"What's clear is we have a marine population [in the Mediterranean] that is just more and more sensitive." Thierry Perez, Marine ecologist

From the outside, this battle may seem academic: Negotiators aren't suggesting the seascape that covers 70 percent of earth is unimportant. But many advocates say so much is happening so quickly in these watery environments that oceans need a higher profile that would elevate discussion of their problems and create momentum to solve them.

Already a new proposal to protect the Indian Ocean off the Republic of Seychelles is being highlighted as a model to protect against climate change. Conservationists are turning to complicated financial instruments to raise money for ocean protection in developing island nations.

But scientists say policymakers and the public first need to understand how fast changes are coming. For that, says Perez, there's no place quite like the Mediterranean. "It's like its own miniature ocean," he says.

Sponges Die, Flatfish Increase

Stretching from Spain to the Balkans and from Libya to France, the Mediterranean occupies nearly a million square miles. It’s connected to the world’s oceans through the Strait of Gibraltar to the west and the Suez Canal to the southeast.

It's proximity to the climate talks–and that unusual geography that keeps it mostly isolated from other oceans–makes it a microcosm of many problems affecting the seas. Neither a tropical nor polar environment where scientists expected to see problems appearing first, the Mediterranean is, even for Perez, sometimes hard to grasp because it’s experiencing so many changes.

"We're trying to shift the narrative on oceans." Andrew Deutz ,The Nature Conservancy

It's here that a colleague stumbled on one of the earliest signs that climate appeared to be altering marine waters. In the late 1980s a disease started killing off marine sponges, some of which had been harvested for 4,000 years. By the 1990s scientists began linking the virulence of the pathogen to the unusual warmth of the water. "It was a very impressive syndrome," Perez says. That was just the beginning.

Before 1995, it was unusual to see 10 major marine-life epidemics in five years. Today, one five-year span might include 50 disease outbreaks, causing die-offs of everything from corals to bryozoans. Some pathogens even drove localized extinctions of some creatures, including a species of sea fan in Italy and a sponge in Monaco.