Archive for July, 2011

Atlas of Stress

Saturday, July 23rd, 2011

Do you wonder:

– Where are dead zones most abundant and most severe?
– How many of global coral reefs are now already threatened, destroyed, or in critical danger, and how does this vary globally?
– Where are the world’s shipping lanes most concentrated, and what impact do they have?
– What sources of energy from the oceans are being developed and implemented?
– What places are most vulnerable to rising sea levels?
– How quickly is the ice being lost from the Arctic and from the West Antarctic Peninsula?
– Where are ocean territorial disputes most serious, and where are pirates most successful?
– Where have Integrated Coastal Ocean Management Plans been created, and why haven’t they been successful?
– Where are the world’s embarrassingly small Marine Protected Areas located?

The Atlas of Coasts and Oceans by Don Hinrichsen, just out in soft cover, looks at these and many other questions with 2 or 4 page spreads liberally illustrated with global and regional maps, pie charts and histograms, and lays out the many stresses the oceans and and coastal ecosystems face in relentless detail. Concise, well organized, colorful, the atlas emphasizes just how much we know about what the press of humanity has done to the oceans, both directly in terms of resource use, urbanization and tourism, and indirectly, in terms of climate change.

The Atlas ends with a section on coastal and ocean management. Almost all coastal nations have developed management plans, almost all recognize that managing at the level of Large Marine Ecosystems is necessary, and almost all of the plans still exist only on paper, while the need for action grows ever greater.

Of the 64 LMEs of the world, only 5 have any plan in place: the Mediterranean, Baltic, Black, Caribbean, and North Seas. Many other International Management Plans also now exist, but again only a few are functional – the Mediterranean, Caribbean and Black Seas.

Not coincidentally, these are five of the LMEs most likely to be unable to recover. They are examples, if we really need them, of the all too familiar human response of refusing to take action to try to fix something until it is too late.

The Atlas is a valuable addition to the global debate. The overall impact of course is grim and disturbing, but clearly we also have the knowledge and the management tools to at least alleviate some of the stress.

How can we possibly know all this, and still not take sufficient action?

The Arctic Ocean and the Rule of Law

Wednesday, July 20th, 2011

On several occasions recently Canada has scrambled some jets to make sure Russian bombers do not penetrate its airspace in the Arctic. This sounds ominous. What gives?

It is all about the central international seas of the Arctic Ocean, about the size of the Mediterranean. With the summer melting of the Arctic ice, the matter of ownership of the extensive oil, gas and minerals of the seabed there is of increasing interest. Is it really an international region, or do coastal Arctic nations have legitimate claims to parts of it, beyond the current 200 miles of their EEZs? The stakes are high.

The Lomonosov Ridge extends underwater between the continental shelves of Canada and Russia (casr.ca)

The question itself is simple enough. The Lomonosov Ridge extends from the Siberian coast of Russia, more or less through the North Pole, to the coast of Canada and Greenland. If the Ridge is an extension of the Russian continental shelf, then Russia can claim a greater portion of the Arctic Ocean as part of its EEZ. If the Ridge is an extension of the Canadian shelf, then Canada can do the same. On the other hand, if the Ridge isn’t attached to either continent, then it is an oceanic ridge, and the Canadian and Russian claims won’t hold up.

In 2001, Russia submitted its claim to the Lomonosov Ridge to the UN Commission on the Limits of the Continental Shelf, and was told to resubmit when they had some better evidence. Now Russia has announced it will submit a new claim by 2013.

Russia's aggressive claim to a large part of the Arctic Ocean, beyond the 200 mile limits of its EEZ (globelaw.com)

For the past several summers, Russia has sent its nuclear powered research vessel, the Akademik Fyodorov, into the Arctic to examine and map the Ridge in detail. Last summer it carried about 70 researchers, along with its small submarine, and spent almost three months at work. Evidence is certainly accumulating.

The Russian research vessel Akademik Fyordorov in the Arctic in 2010 (reutersmedia.net)

Meanwhile, Canada intends to submit a claim to the UN at about the same time, hoping to convince the same Commission that the Lomonosov Ridge is really an extension of Canada’s Ellesmere Island.

Not surprisingly, things are heating up politically. Russia plans to send a couple of brigades into the region. Canada’s Prime Minister Harper, who seems to have a special interest in the Arctic, has said “Canada is an Arctic power, and will continue to exercise our sovereignty”. NATO is showing interest, expecting warships will come from different sources once the ice melts sufficiently in summer, and that NATO ought to be there to defuse tensions.

A Russian sub planted a flag on the seabed at the North Pole in 2007, but planting a US flag on the moon in 1969 did not make the moon American (barentsobservor.com)

Canada and Russia do in fact agree on one thing: NATO has no reason to be in the Arctic. Since, almost alone in the world, the US still hasn’t ratified the UN Law of the Sea, it is uncertain what role, if any, it can have in the upcoming sovereignty decisions – perhaps NATO is its proxy.

Russia emphasizes it is adhering to the rule of law. Last September, Norway and Russia resolved their dispute over 176,000 km2 of Arctic Ocean that straddles their EEZs, agreeing to joint development of straddling deposits of oil and natural gas.

Anton Vasilev, Russian ambassador at large for the Arctic, referring to its recent agreement with Norway as a useful precedent, said “All problems will be resolved the same way. No blood, no conflict. Professionals quietly at work on the basis of international law. Full stop. And we shall do it.”

Russia is acting, and sounding, relatively rational. It is time for Canada – and its Prime Minister – to do the same.

Prime Minister Harper at work protecting Canadian Arctic sovereignty (byers.typepad.com)

And yet we once had a dream that the development of the Arctic would be different, that we had learned so much about how not to develop marine ecosystems that the Arctic would be treated as the sanctuary it deserves to be, that its obvious fragility would protect it from ‘business-as-usual’ development.

We can now only hope that cooperation and the Rule of Law truly are sufficient to prevent the Arctic Ocean going the route of pretty well every other piece of the world’s seas.

There still remains the opportunity to do better this time, and not continue to be forced to try to make the best of bad times.

New Migrations

Tuesday, July 12th, 2011

The Northwest Passage has opened for more than just the occasional ship.

A year ago a grey whale turned up on the Israeli coast in the Mediterranean. There are about 20,000 grey whale migrating up and down the Pacific coast of North America, another 200 survive along the western edge of the Pacific, but since the 1700s none have been seen in the Atlantic – efficiently hunted there to extinction.

But now there is one in the Atlantic again.

The fluke of the grey whale that visited Israel in 2010 (israeliconsulate.org)

It probably crossed the Arctic three summers ago following the Northwest Passage, and then migrated south in the Atlantic to warmer water. Considering the attention this one whale received, it is highly unlikely that it is from some unknown population of grey whales that somehow survived in the Atlantic unseen for the past two or three hundred years. Grey whales hug the coast, feed on the bottom mud, and spend their winter in southerly warmer water: they are too hard to miss.

And now more species have arrived, along the same route.

A planktonic diatom characteristic of the North Pacific (Neodenticulata seminae) arrived in the Sea of Labrador in 1999, the St.Lawrence Estuary in 2001, and now has reached as far as Long Island. Diatoms leave their skeletons behind when they die, each with a species-specific architecture, and this diatom has not been seen in the North Atlantic for 800,000 years.

The diatom Neodenticulata recolonizes the North Atlantic

The Northwest Passage was open in 1998, then again in 2007. This summer, ice has melted at about the same rate it did in 2007, so another open passage is likely – open not just for adventurous humans, but also for migrating and current driven marine life.

Extent of Arctic ice melt, July 6, 2011 (red lines indicate median extent of ice for this date, 1977-2000). (nsidc.org)

The Arctic ice is melting fast enough this summer for the NW Passage to open once again (nsidc.org)

Though the grey whale was last seen near Spain 23 days after its appearance near Israel, it hasn’t been sighted since, and may have died. But what’s ahead? Perhaps grey whales will recolonize the Atlantic – that would be exciting. More plankton species are certainly making the trip. So some of the largest and some of the smallest organisms have crossed the Arctic: more regular mixing of Pacific and Atlantic fauna and flora is now inevitable.

The Northwest Passage will soon be open every summer, and for ever longer periods. As temperatures and currents in the North Pacific and North Atlantic also continue to change, the adjustments to marine ecosystems will be significant, and fascinating to watch.

More change is upon us. Part of the new emerging world as the climate warms.