Oceans on the Brink: Dying Plankton, Dead Zones, Acidification

A number of marine diatom cells

By Stephen Leahy

[Originally published Jul 31, 2010 for the Inter Press Service (IPS)]

The oceans are the lifeblood of our planet and plankton its red blood cells. Those vital “red blood cells” have declined more than 40 percent since 1950 and the rate of decline is increasing due to climate change, scientists reported this week. (Update Dec 2016: New analysis show this is an overestimate. See my comment below.)

Phytoplankton are a critical part of our planetary life support system. They produce half of the oxygen we breathe, draw down surface CO2, and ultimately support all of our fisheries,” said

Boris Worm of Canadas Dalhousie University and one of the worlds leading experts on the global oceans.

“An ocean with less phytoplankton will function differently,” said Worm, the co-author of a new study on plankton published this week in Nature. Plankton are the equivalent of grass, trees and other plants that make land green, says study co-author Marlon Lewis, an oceanographer at Dalhousie.

“It is frightening to realise we have lost nearly half of the oceans’ green plants,” Lewis told IPS.

“It looks like the rate of decline is increasing,” he said.

A large phytoplankton bloom in the Northeast Atlantic -NASA Earth Observatory Collection.

[See also my series of articles on ocean acidification]

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Climate change is warming the oceans about 0.2C per decade on average. This warmer water tends to stay on top because it is lighter and essentially sits on top of a layer of colder water. This layering, or stratification, is a problem for light-loving plankton because they can only live in the top 100 to 200 meters.

Eventually they run out of nutrients to feed on unless the cold, deeper waters mix with those near the surface. Ocean stratification has been widely observed in the past decade and is occurring in more and larger areas of the world’s oceans. Continue reading

High Seas Represent $148 Billion Carbon Sink But Overfishing is Destroying It

Tuna from the Spanish Purse Seiner
Tuna from the Spanish Purse Seiner

By STEPHEN LEAHY

Stephen Leahy's picture

 

Scientists estimate that phytoplankton absorb and bury more than 1.6 billion tonnes of CO2 in the seabed every year.

This would be news to readers of Canada’s Globe and Mail newspaper’s detailed two-page spread on the Global Ocean Commission report, which failed to mention this vitally important carbon reduction service (or that it is worth an estimated $148 billion a year).

Additionally, if governments ended fishing in the unclaimed oceans beyond 200-mile economic zones, near-shore fish catches would soar, even more carbon would be safely removed from the atmosphere and the oceans would be healthier said co-author of the study Rashid Sumaila of the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Centre.

The high seas are like a failed state. Poor governance and the absence of policing and management mean valuable resources are unprotected or being squandered,” said David Miliband, co-chair of the commission and former foreign secretary of the United Kingdom.

The dollar value of all the fish caught in high seas is actually negative

Governments like Japan, Spain, the U.S. and China subsidize fishing fleets to destroy the high seas by overfishing and deep-sea bottom trawling to the tune of $152 million a year.

Here’s the kicker: The dollar value of all the fish caught way out there is actually negative when costs like fuel and subsidies are subtracted. Turns out high seas fishing fleets get 25 per cent of their income from subsidies according to a 2009 analysis by Sumaila.

Most would not be fishing the high seas without subsidies” Sumaila told DeSmog Canada.

Restoring ocean productivity

Fishing should be banned in the high seas, which represent 64 per cent of the world’s oceans just to protect and enhance its role as a carbon sponge, he said. But that is just one of 14 other valuable services the high seas provide humanity according their study, The High Seas And Us: Understanding The Value Of High Seas Ecosystems.

The study was commissioned by the Global Ocean Commission, an 18-month-old organization comprised of business leaders and former senior politicians including former Canadian prime minister Paul Martin.

The commission is calling for the negotiation of a new agreement under the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea to prioritize ocean health and resilience and restore ocean productivity. It also called for an elimination of subsidies on high seas fishing within five years.

The commission’s proposals also call for mandatory tracking of all vessels fishing in the high seas, a ban on the transshipment of fish at sea, measures to end plastics pollution and binding standards for the regulation and control of offshore oil and gas exploration and exploitation.

Carbon really does sink

Phytoplankton are the carbon-eating plants of the seas and pass on this carbon when they’re eaten. When organisms die in the deep seas, their organic matter ends up on the bottom of the ocean, which makes for an effective, natural carbon sequestration process.

Fishing is crippling this free carbon-removal system. This is especially true for bottom-trawlers that bulldoze the sea floor scooping up every living thing. Trawling is by far the most common fishing method and recent studies warn it’s destroying corals and the sea bottom leading to “long-term biological desertification.”

Last May, scientists writing in the journal Science called for an end to “the frontier mentality of exploitation” of the high seas and recommended a ban on trawling to protect the carbon-removal service and halt the decline in the productivity of the oceans. The amount of wild fish caught peaked 20 years ago.

About 70 per cent of fish caught inside the 200-mile limits spend some time in the high seas. If the high seas are protected those fish are likely to grow larger and become more numerous, benefitting near-shore fisheries, Sumaila said.

A number of studies of marine protected zones where fishing is banned or very limited show these areas act as baby-fish incubators increasing the overall population of fish.

If fishing was banned in the high seas, fisheries profits would more than double, the amount of fish would increase 30 per cent and the amount of ocean fish stock conservation would increase 150 per cent according to a study published in PLOS Biology last March.

Given the reality that fishing the high seas is a money loser, even a low carbon price could make a fishing ban valuable, not to mention the other potential benefits of regulating international fisheries. Sumaila said the $148 billion-a-year value of the high seas carbon sponge is a conservative estimate, and it could actually be as high as $222 billion.

Fishing and trawling bans have been proposed before. Last December the European parliament narrowly rejected a bottom-trawling ban on its vessels.

We need wide public understanding of the vital importance of the high seas to all of us,” concluded Sumaila.

Top 10 High Seas Fishing Nations (according to Sumaila’s study) in descending order:
Japan
South Korea
Taiwan
Spain
USA
Chile
China
Indonesia
Philippines
France

First published by DeSmog Canada Wed, 2014-06-25 10:01

Canada Leading ‘Deforestation Nation’ In Race to Destroy Planet’s Last Wilderness Areas

Canada's tar sands projects visible from space
Canada’s tar sands projects visible from space

Forest Loss Results in Massive Emissions of CO2

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Sep 5 2014 (IPS) 

The world’s last remaining forest wilderness is rapidly being lost – and much of this is taking place in Canada, not in Brazil or Indonesia where deforestation has so far made the headlines.

A new satellite study reveals that since 2000 more than 104 million hectares of forests – an area three times the size of Germany – have been destroyed or degraded.

Since 2000 more than 104 million hectares of forests – an area three times the size of Germany – have been destroyed or degraded.


“Every four seconds, an area of the size of a football (soccer) field is lost,” said Christoph Thies of Greenpeace International.

The extent of this forest loss, which is clearly visible in satellite images taken in 2000 and 2013, is “absolutely appalling” and has a global impact, Thies told IPS, because forests play a crucial in regulating the climate.


The current level of deforestation is putting more CO2 into the atmosphere than all the world’s cars, trucks, ships and planes together, he said, adding that “governments must take urgent action” to protect intact forests by creating more protected areas, strengthening the rights of forest communities and other measures, including convincing lumber, furniture manufacturers and others to refuse to use products from virgin forests.

Greenpeace is one of several partners in the Intact Forest Landscapes initiative, along with the University of Maryland, World Resources Institute and WWF-Russia among others, that uses satellite imagery technology to determine the location and extent of the world’s last large undisturbed forests.

The new study found that half of forest loss from deforestation and degradation occurred in just three countries: Canada, Russia and Brazil. These countries are also home to about 65 percent of world’s remaining forest wilderness.

However, despite all the media attention on deforestation in the Amazon forest and the forests of Indonesia, it is Canada that has been leading the world in forest loss since 2000, accounting for 21 percent of global forest loss. By contrast, the much-better known deforestation in Indonesia has accounted for only four percent.

Brazil's Amazon forest - 2013. Credit_Courtesy of Global Forest Watch

Massive increases in oil sands and shale gas developments, as well as logging and road building, are the major cause of Canada’s forest loss, said Peter Lee of Global Forest Watch Canada, an independent Canadian NGO.

A big increase in forest fires is another cause of forest loss. Climate change has rapidly warmed northern Canada, drying out the boreal forests and bogs and making them more vulnerable to fires.

In Canada’s northern Alberta’s oil sands region, more than 12.5 million hectares of forest have been crisscrossed by roads, pipelines, power transmission lines and other infrastructure, Lee told IPS.

Canada’s oil sands and shale gas developments are expected to double and possibly triple in the next decade and “there’s little interest at the federal or provincial political level in conserving intact forest landscapes,” Lee added.

The world’s last remaining large undisturbed forests are where most of the planet’s remaining wild animals, birds, plants and other species live, Nigel Sizer, Global Director of the Forest Programme at the World Resources Institute, told a press conference.

Animals like Siberian tigers, orangutans and woodland caribou require large areas of forest wilderness, Sizer noted, and “losing these top species leads to a decline of entire forest ecosystems in subtle ways that are hard to measure.”

While forests can re-grow, this takes many decades, and in northern forests more than 100 years. However, if species go extinct or there are too few individuals left, it will take longer for a full forest ecosystem to recover – if ever.

In just 13 years, South America’s Paraguay converted an incredible 78 percent of its remaining forest wilderness mainly into large-scale soybean farms and rough pasture, the study found. Satellite images and maps on the new Global Forest Watch website offer see-it-with-your-own eyes images of Paraguay’s forests vanishing over time.

The images and data collected for the study are accessible via various tools on the website. They reveal that 25 percent of Europe’s largest remaining forest, located 900 km north of Moscow, has been chopped down to feed industrial logging operations. In the Congo, home of the world’s second largest tropical forest, 17 percent has been lost to logging, mining and road building. The Global Forest Watch website also shows details of huge areas of Congo forest licensed for future logging.

Deforestation starts with road building, often linked to logging and extractive industries, said Thies. In some countries, like Brazil and Paraguay, the prime reason is conversion to large-scale agriculture, usually for crops that will be exported.

The new data could help companies with sustainability commitments in determining which areas to avoid when sourcing commodities like timber, palm oil, beef and soy. Market-led efforts need to gain further support given the lax governance and enforcement in many of these forest regions, Thies said.

He called on the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) – a voluntary certification programme that sets standards for forest management – to “also play a stronger role” and to improve those standards in order to better protect wilderness forests.

Without urgent action to curb deforestation, it is doubtful that any large-scale wild forest will remain by the end of this century, concluded Sizer.

First published on IPS

Website for my new book: Your Water Footprint

YWF website logoNew Book Investigating The Enormous Amounts Of  ‘Hidden’ Water We Consume Every Day

By Journalist Stephen Leahy, Winner of the 2012 Prince Albert/United Nations Global Prize for Reporting on Climate Change

It takes more than 7,600 liters (2,000 gallons) of water to make a single pair of jeans. That morning cup of coffee required 140 liters (37 gallons) of water before it found its way to your table—water that was used to grow, process and ship the coffee beans. When we spend money on food, clothes, cellphones or even electricity, we are buying water  — a shockingly large amount of water.

New Website featuring:

Articles: How to save 900,000 litres of water at the dinner table

Sample Infographics

About the Author (including video)

Reviews

Your Water Footprint by Stephen Leahy

http://yourwaterfootprint.me

WATER IS MORE VALUABLE AND USEFUL THAN OIL

The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use to Make Everyday Products

Screen Shot 2014-07-20 at 10.28.00 AMYour Water Footprint 

By journalist Stephen Leahy, winner of the 2012 United Nations Global Prize for Climate Change and Environment Coverage

“…a brilliant and shocking exposé on precisely how much water we use…” – Publishers Weekly

Do you know you’re wearing water? It takes more than 7,600 liters (2,000 gallons) of water to make a single pair of jeans and another 2,460 liters (650 gallons) to make a T-shirt. And you’re eating water too. That morning cup of coffee required 140 liters (37 gallons) of water before it found its way to your table—water that was used to grow, process and ship the coffee beans. If you include toast, two eggs and some milk in your coffee, the water footprint of your breakfast totals about 700 liters (185 gallons).

Furniture, houses, cars, roads, buildings— practically everything we make uses water in the manufacturing process. When we spend money on food, clothes, cellphones or even electricity, we are buying water. A lot of water. Generating electricity from coal, oil, gas, and nuclear or hydro power involves the world’s second biggest use of water after food production.YWF graphic -YWF shirt

…exceptionally lucid narration with arresting, full-page info graphics”  — Booklist,  starred review

Your Water Footprint:  The Shocking Facts About How Much Water We Use To Make Everyday Products

Published by Firefly Books:  160 Pages, 125 Unique Infographics, $19.95 Paperback (Also avail in hardcover)

Order on Amazon.com

In Canada:  Order on Chapters-Indigo

In UK:  Order on WH Smith

More reviews and sample graphics on Your Water Footprint Website

Career Choice: Abandon Journalism for Public Relations or….?

Screen Shot 2014-09-25 at 3.25.37 PM

Freelancer Stephen Leahy on crowdfunding his environmental journalism

by Rachel Sanders

Stephen Leahy was at a conservation conference in Mexico five years ago when the dire state of freelance journalism became clear to him. After the event, he spoke with several other freelancers, all of whom had received travel awards to attend the event. Most of them had not been able to sell a single story about the conference.

copenhagen-press-pass“These other freelancers were supremely experienced. The former bureau chief from Asia from the New York Times, the former chief of some bureau at Reuters AFP, all these guys had really impressive credentials. And they couldn’t sell any stories as freelancers,” Leahy told Story Board during a recent phone interview.

“And one of the big pronouncements there was the need to protect 50% of the planet. Which is a number that is outrageous and had never ever been uttered before. And I was like ‘wow that’s a really good story.’ But they couldn’t sell any stories. I was the only one who had sold two or three stories.”

Leahy, who is based in Uxbridge, Ontario, says that several of those journalists quit freelancing after this dismal experience. Some made the switch to PR. But he wasn’t prepared to give up.

“People say to me all the time ‘my God, this is amazing stuff, how come I never knew about these things?’ So people want it and I want to keep doing it. How do we make this happen? The only solution I could come up with was, well, they have to pay me directly. Publishers aren’t going to pay, and many of the places I write for can’t pay. Who benefits from this stuff, who wants to see it? The readers. And so why not ask them?”

Over the next few years, Leahy built up an email contact list. The members on his mailing list now number around a thousand. Once a week he sends out a newsletter with links to his most recent stories. Approximately 10% of his newsletters also include a direct pitch for financial support.

“When I first started it was probably a much higher percentage than that. It was probably 50% pitches included with these newsletters. Now it’s declined quite a bit because it’s been pretty stable and I’ve been getting lots of assignments so I haven’t needed it so much,” he said.

Leahy has been freelancing for 22 years. His work has been published in National Geographic, The Guardian, Vice Magazine, Al Jazeera, and The Toronto Star among many others. But with ad revenues dropping, and freelance budgets shrinking, the market is tighter than ever for environmental reporting. Leahy has succeeded in making up some of the income shortfall with crowdfunding. These days, reader contributions account for approximately 20 to 25% of his income.

Leahy believes that his funding model would work with any subject that people care passionately about. But he says it’s also vital that readers feel a connection to the writer in question.

“The subject’s one thing but you also have to want to see more stuff from this writer. It’s a relationship between reader and writer. It’s difficult to do, it takes a long time to build up that relationship. You have to know your audience, you have to build a relationship with them and there has to be some sense of reciprocity. In return for me doing my thing, you help me out. It’s an exchange,” he said.

Leahy int Tom Goldtooth sml - cancun march - renee leahy 2010

To build those relationships, Leahy has had to open up to his readers about his finances and his personal life.

“It’s hard to donate to a person you don’t really know. So I had to open up and explain the situation, the reality of freelancing. Sometimes you get $150 for a story you might have spent two weeks on. Any sensible person would not do that,” he said.

He has tried a number of different funding models – such as asking for weekly contributions and making project-based funding requests – but has found the most success by asking his readers for monthly contributions. And although only a small percentage of his readers offer him financial support, some support him in other ways.

“There are people who do not make financial contributions but they make information contributions or will help me out if I say ‘I’m going to X, Y, and Z to cover this subject. I can’t afford any hotels. Anybody know anyone who could let me stay at their place?’ And that worked out two or three years ago in Bonn, Germany to cover a UN climate meeting,” he said.

Though his published work covers weighty topics, Leahy says some of the most difficult writing he does is in his weekly email newsletters.

“The asking for money thing, of course, was difficult. But it was definitely as difficult to be open and more personable with other people. To be a real person, not just a byline. To say ‘yes I welcome your comments and ideas and I want to have a dialogue,” he said.

“I spend a lot of time editing my own stuff and thinking ‘I’ve got to get this into 200 words or less.’ Nobody wants more email spam, right? So it’s important to be really interesting every time, not just once in a while.”

Despite the difficulties involved in making a living as a freelancer, Leahy is committed to the career.

“You get to meet really interesting people,” he said.

“I had a corporate career for a few years and one of the reasons I gave it up is because I found the folks in the business community not particularly interesting. When I started freelancing, I started writing about farming and agriculture. And I thought ‘my God, farmers are way more interesting than these corporate CEOs. There’s much more to them.’”

And the people aren’t the only thing that Leahy finds interesting about freelancing.

“You get to learn all the time. And because I’ve been lucky enough to mostly write about what I’m interested in, it’s never boring. It’s never easy, but it’s never boring. And I get to choose not only what’s interesting but what I think is important,” he said.

“Freelancing allows you to use your time in the way you want to use it.”

You can contact Stephen Leahy through his website to join his mailing list or ask questions about his crowdfunding model. And you can find him on Twitter at @StephenLeahy.

Help Sustain Independent Environmental Journalism

Canada Losing Its Seasons — Winter is in full retreat

arctic-sea-ice-min-volume-comparison-1979-2012-small

By Stephen Leahy

UXBRIDGE, Canada, Mar 11 2013 (IPS) 

“Canada is not a country, it’s winter,” Canadians say with pride. But the nation’s long, fearsome winters will live only in memory and song for Canadian children born this decade.Winters are already significantly warmer and shorter than just 30 years ago. The temperature regimes and plant life of the south have marched more than 700 kilometres northward, new research shows.

The frozen north is leaving and won’t be back for millennia due to heat-trapping carbon emissions from burning fossil fuels, experts say.

By 2091, the north will have seasons, temperatures and possibly vegetation comparable to those found today 20 to 25 degrees of latitude further south, said Ranga Myneni of the Department of Earth and Environment, Boston University.

“If we don’t curb carbon emissions, Arctic Sweden might be more like the south of France by the end of the century,” Myneni, co-author of the Nature Climate Change study published Sunday, told IPS.

Full story here