Sam Phipps – How Coronavirus Can Trigger a Sea Change
A respite in atmospheric and water pollution because of the Coronavirus shutdown is a “silver lining” that shows the power of nature to bounce back, according to a leading marine biologist.
Dr Howard Dryden, who founded the Global Oceanic Environmental Survey (Goes) Foundation to measure the toxic threat facing marine and freshwater life, hopes the enforced letup from industry and consumers will open a window of awareness for the world.
“We are already seeing huge environmental improvements in northern Italy and also in the main cities of China,” Dr Dryden said. “In Venice the water quality in the canals has improved to the extent where fish and even dolphins have been seen coming in. In China and other countries, air quality has improved dramatically from the plunge in industrial and transport emissions.
“It shows people what things could be like if we stop putting the usual levels of pollution into our atmosphere and water. The ecosystem could bounce back very quickly if we took them out of the equation – recovery can be easier than many people might imagine.”
Oceans under threat
On the downside, an environmental tipping point is likely to be reached within 25 years unless global government action is taken in the next decade to stem the poisoning of the oceans.
Dr Dryden, who addressed an event in Edinburgh organised by the Asia Scotland Institute this week, cited the key role played by phytoplankton – microscopic plants and animals that have been shown to generate up to 70 per cent of the planet’s oxygen. These plankton use photosynthesis to produce oxygen and remove carbon dioxide. “They are the basis of our food chain and the lungs of the planet. Quite simply, plankton is the foundation of our existence, and all life on Earth depends on it.”
Nasa satellite imaging shows the mass of phytoplankton has been falling 1 per cent year on year over the last 20 years. It has dropped more than 40 per cent in the last 50 years, according to research by Dalhousie University in Canada.
“If things go on as they have been, in the next 25 years we will have lost 75 per cent of all plankton, the oceans will become more acidic and the ecosystems will crash,” Dr Dryden said. “We will lose most of the whales, seals, birds and the fish, and along with them a food supply for billions of people. Life on earth may become impossible.”
The pH level of the oceans, which measures acidity, has fallen from 8.26 in the 1940s – when a new group of toxic industrial and agricultural chemicals were introduced on a mass scale – to 8.06 today. If it drops below 7.9, marine life will no longer be viable, according to scientists.
Not only is toxic chemical pollution, including herbicides and pesticides, suffocating our oceans but this is contributing to climate change, Dr Dryden said.
“The prevailing focus has been rising carbon dioxide levels from burning of fossil fuels. It is important to cut these emissions but we must eliminate marine toxic chemicals at the same time. These are in every type of household cleaner and personal care product.”
Among the most common are plastic microbeads in body scrub (now banned in many countries including the UK and US), oxybenzone in suncream and other cosmetics, and triclosan in soap and toothpaste.
“It is impossible to overestimate the importance of photosynthesis in the maintenance and now delicate balance of life on Earth. We must restore our oceans – it’s not just about saving whales and dolphins – we cannot survive if we keep poisoning them,” Dr Dryden said.
On the plus side, most phytoplankton take only a few hours – some as little as 20 minutes – to reach full maturity, compared with 50 to 100 years for some trees. Oceanic regeneration can therefore be swift.
The Goes Foundation is campaigning for measures including the ban of single use plastic; zero discharge from pharmaceutical companies by 2025; mandatory treatment of all municipal wastewater by 2030 and zero toxic discharge by 2030.
Under this scenario, and with a ban on all whaling and deep ocean fishing from 2030, the oceans could recover by 2050 and the pH level could recover to 8.26.
“The Coronavirus is definitely an opportunity to consider and act on these things,” Dr Dryden says. “My fear is that as soon as the virus is gone, everything will return to the old ways but the improvement we’re seeing to some areas of the environment at least gives us a lesson and shows what is possible.”