Young Journalists: Marine Life and Climate Change

Young Journalists: Marine Life and Climate Change

Snakelocks and thongweed - Paul Naylor

Written by the Dorset Wildlife Young Journalists for the Spring 2022 membership magazine. By Charlie Saban, Emma Papka, Poppy Marshall and Ruby Pruden-Medus.

Introduction (by Charlie)
COP26, or Conference of the Parties, is an annual event, attended by every country which has signed the UN Convention on climate change.  COP 26 lasted from October 31st until November 12th 2021. The goal aimed for a net zero outcome; and if average temperature rises can remain below 1.5 degrees, Earth can avoid the most severe impacts of climate change. More than 30,000 delegates contributed to the blue zone formal events, where strategies and solutions were discussed on how to achieve global progress concerning climate change. Despite some uncertainty on the COP26 agreements, the following article can highlight, and shine a light on the truth about our changing marine environment. Emma, Ruby, Poppy and Jacob will demonstrate their thoughts and concerns, and explain their opinions on both the past, present and possible future as a result of our actions and attitudes towards climate change.

In the past (by Emma)
Between 21,000 and 11,700 years ago, the Earth warmed by about 4 degrees C. The Oceans rose by 85m, both during the warming and as an after effect for thousands of years later. From about 3,000 years ago to the 1900s, sea levels have remained fairly stable. However, in the past 100 years, the average global temperature has risen by 1 degree C, and sea levels have risen by around 21cm (8 inches), with almost half of this change occurring since 1993, when industry and technology was more prominent.

Marine life in Dorset has always been extremely diverse, shown by the huge array of species, ranging from grey seals to seahorses, that can be found along Dorset’s extensive coastline. However, the world’s, the UK’s and Dorset’s marine life biodiversity is constantly depleting and changing, with both new creatures being found, and others being lost forever. Although a lot of the changes the earth and the ocean go through are natural, they are being greatly accelerated by climate change/global warming, which is doing even more damage. This can be seen through the coastal erosion that has been happening on our own shores, and ocean acidification (caused by excess absorption of CO2), which effects marine life all over the world. Our coastlines have receded greatly, and are projected to erode even more in the near future. 

The ocean has always absorbed CO2 from the atmosphere. In fact, since industrialisation, the oceans have absorbed about a third of the carbon dioxide that we have released into the atmosphere, helping to slow our rising temperatures. However, this has had an enormous effect on the overall health of the oceans and the species living inside it. The absorption of CO2 is causing our oceans to acidify. In the last 150 years alone, the ocean's pH has dropped from 8.2 to 8.1, which, although it does not seem like much, is equal to a 25% increase in acidity. This is already having detrimental effects on marine life. For example, some of those affected are organisms with calcium carbonate shells. As the sea water becomes more acidic, it can hold less calcium carbonate, which is essential for these organisms and coral reefs. It has been found that as the ocean acidifies, it is much harder for these organisms to form their shells, and as the pH gets too low, they can even begin to dissolve. The shells that they do manage to make though, have been found to be much thinner to those before ocean acidification was an issue. Similarly, it is harder for corals to grow their skeletons. 

Present Day (by Ruby)
Today, Dorset’s coastal landscape is named an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty attracting thousands of tourists each year. Beneath the 185 million-year-old “Jurassic Coast” is a wealth of habitats and a variety of marine species from Spirorbis tube worms to rare sightings of humpback whales. But such tourism, along with global warming and the fishing industry threatens this biodiversity. Human disturbance has deeply affected marine life with plastic pollution, boat anchors damaging the seabed and animals being dangerously habitualised to human activity (remember “Danny the Dolphin” and “Sammy the Seal”?). Between 1992 and 2018 the ocean absorbed 67 billion tonnes of carbon dioxide (Dr Shuter, Prof Watson, University of Exeter) harming animals at the base of the food chain by dissolving their shells and skeletons. Similarly, rising temperatures are causing warm-water species to migrate and interfere with current ecosystems while overfishing threatens all marine life and the sustainability of our food security. Clearly, this is a time of significant change in our marine life and it is up to us to determine its future. 

A possible future – what could net zero look like? (by Poppy)
Fast forward to a future of progression we could only now dream of. The UK transport system is our largest source of carbon dioxide emissions, damaging environmental and public health. Achieving net zero would mean reducing toxic pollution. Un-renewable travel would be substituted with new systems, reducing mileage, and creating ultra-low-emission zones. Electric vehicles, bikes and emission free micro mobility would dominate. Extensive cycling infrastructure, car-free zones, low traffic neighbourhoods and congestion charges would reduce congestion. Fully segregated bus lanes would increase efficiency, with electric rail providing transport capacity with low environmental impact. 

The UK infrastructure would look very different. The built environment is responsible for approximately 40% of our total carbon footprint. Net zero would mean using alternative materials and construction methods, improving energy efficiency. The “embodied carbon” of buildings consists of all the GHG (greenhouse gases) emissions associated with construction, including extraction, transportation, manufacturing, and installation. Skyscrapers are responsible for 7% of global CO2. Instead, we would have buildings made from CLT (a carbon negative material), with much lower embodied carbon levels. We would have more timber-framed buildings, capable of storing 23 tonnes of CO2 per house, saving 88 tonnes of emitted CO2 compared to an equivalent masonry house. Green roofs and walls would sequester CO2, reduce pollution, and insulate buildings. 

Net zero would mean new approaches to energy supply and waste management. Recycling hubs and low carbon energy centres would become local landmarks, replacing our throwaway economy, dominated by single-use items. We would rely on renewable energy, wind farms, nuclear and solar plants. Local energy production would cut emissions through a system of insulated pipes, using renewable low carbon resources. The principle of re-using or recycling would replace the transportation, incineration, or burying our waste, reducing carbon emissions. 

Water and food management would change in a net zero future. Sustainable urban drainage systems, green roofs and rainwater harvesting make our use of water more efficient. Urban food farms would feed local populations without depleting resources or relying on GHG-emitting transportation. Net zero would also change the weather, reducing the likelihood of extreme weather conditions. 

So, what might this all ultimately look like? Instead of polluted streets full of cars we would have more open space. Instead of concrete, steel, and glass buildings, we would have stone or wood homes, hosting solar panels, greenery and vegetable gardens. We have a way out, with clear solutions to avoid a very threatened future. These will create a better and healthier environment for all species – will we make it happen?