Marine Environment

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Earth is often referred to as the Water Planet. It is the only planet in our solar system known to have living oceans that are home to marine life. The oceans have been evolving for over 3 billion years.  It is only very recently, within the last few 100 years, that any single species has had any significant negative effect on the natural balance of the ocean's ecosystem.  Earth's human population has now increased to over 6 billion with over 3 billion now living within 60 miles of a coast line. With the total world population projected to reach 9 billion by 2050, an additional 40 million people are likely to be added to these coastal areas each year up to that date.

Pollution, over-harvesting and general habitat destruction are seriously impacting our vast, yet extremely fragile, marine environment.

Seals, turtles, fish, and other marine life frequently become entangled in drifting nets and other trash. Photo by Tim Regan, Courtesy of NOAA Oil covered bird. Photo Courtesy: Office of Response and Restoration, National Ocean Service, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration
The ocean is the birth place of life on earth.  Over several billions of years, it has developed into what it is today through a very intricate and complex balance of natural phenomena. The ocean remains home to several hundred thousand different plant and animal species.  It is essential to all living beings, both in the water and on land. The oceans provide the most basic needs such as the oxygen we need to breathe and much of the food we eat.  More recently, the ocean has been discovered to provide lifesaving medicines that fight cancer and countless other ailments. 

The oceans also play an essential role in the carbon cycle, and currently absorb about half of all of the atmospheric carbon, thereby reducing or slowing the effects of global warming. See our Ocean Facts page for more information. There is little serious doubt as to whether or not we humans are causing ozone depletion and global warming.  The issue is what will occur due to these changes.  To date, most debates concerning the long term effects of this man-made increase in greenhouse gases have assumed that the changes will occur over many generations. However, there is now alarming evidence which indicates that these changes could instead  cause an abrupt change in the global climate within a period as little as 10 years.

In the past, fluctuations have occurred over a geological time scale. Now, changes may occur during a human lifetime as a result of the large quantity of heat-trapping gasses released from human activities. Fossil records, ice core samples, and other paleoclimatic data shows that abrupt changes have occurred in the ocean's currents.  In turn, these have caused rapid changes to the global temperatures and weather patterns. The ocean makes earth's weather and regulates its temperature while storing over 1,000 times more heat than our atmosphere. The ocean conveyor currents redistribute this huge amount of heat around the planet.  This causes hurricanes, typhoons, severe or mild winters, monsoon seasons, El Niños, rainfall patterns, and other climate fluctuations. Small changes in temperature and salinity can and have, as records now show, cause these great currents, like the Gulf Stream, to stop or change course. A 2002 report by the US National Academy of Sciences (NAS) said “available evidence suggests that abrupt climate changes are not only possible but likely in the future, potentially with large impacts on ecosystems and societies.” (US National Academy of Sciences, National Research Council Committee on Abrupt Climate Change, 2002) More information is provided in the Manmade Global Warming area.

Additionally, irresponsible actions taken by the exploding human population has caused the total extinction of several hundred plant and animal species during the last few hundred years. According to information published by the World Conservation Union (IUCN) in collaboration with over 600 scientists, 25% of mammal and amphibian species, 11% of birds, 20% of reptiles, and 34% of fish species surveyed so far, are threatened with extinction. In addition, another 5-14% of species in these groups are "nearing threatened" status.

Today, some scientists believe that we may be losing over 30,000 plant and animal species a year.  This rate is much faster than at any time since the last great natural extinction 65 million years ago that killed most of the dinosaurs. Seven out of 10 biologists believe the world is now in the midst of the fastest mass extinction of living things in the 4.5 billion-year history of the planet according to a poll conducted by the American Museum of Natural History and the Louis Harris survey research firm. This loss of plant and animal species will also result in the the loss of any potential benefits these species may have provided to us.  The possibilities include discovering new medicines and potential cures to human ailments. About 25% of drugs prescribed in the U.S. include chemical compounds derived from wild organisms.  Billions of people worldwide rely on plant- and animal-based traditional medicine for their primary health care.

In 1998 at the start of the United Nations International Year of the Ocean, more than 1,600 marine scientists and conservation biologists from 65 countries issued an unprecedented warning to the world's governments and citizens that the sea is in trouble. The consensus is that  destruction of marine biological diversity stems from five primary causes:

  1. overexploitation of species,
  2. physical alteration of ecosystems,
  3. pollution,
  4. alien species from distant waters disrupting local food webs and
  5. global atmospheric change.

These findings were again identified more recently in an in-depth study and evaluation of the oceans surrounding the United States.  The study by the Pew Oceans Commission is entitled "America's Living Oceans: Charting a Course for Sea Change." (Pew Oceans Commission, 2003). The Pew Oceans Commission, chaired by Leon E. Panetta, added Aquaculture and By-catch to their list of identified serious threats. The following pages will explain each of these identified threats in depth and, most importantly, show you WHAT YOU CAN DO.

The problems that have occurred, and will continue to occur as the delicate balance of ecosystems are interrupted, are only beginning to be understood.  We do know that the effects are now well documented on a global scale. 

Continue to our POLLUTION pages.

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