The Oceanic Eve of Destruction
Tom Owen McElroy
The ocean is dead. Combine harvesters used to harvest algae just past the surf line on the Ventura, California coast. The algae that grew on the sand is dead, long gone. We collected Pismo clams at minus tides, now gone, forgotten. Restaurants serve bearded mussels, which we were taught were poisonous and took off the rocks for bait, but they are all gone in Ventura. We used them to fish for some 20 varieties of perch, none of which are found there anymore. The intertidal zone is a dead wasteland.
Functionally, all the major ecosystems of the world’s oceans are dead. I was disabled while working towards a PhD in paleoecology, specifically studying whether or not the extinction of carbonate reefs, and there have always been oceanic reefs, was an effect of global extinction, or, a more disturbing possibility, reef death was a major cause of past global extinction events.
Coral reefs, specifically the hard corals that absorb and sequester carbon dioxide from the atmosphere, have been extinct since about 2017. My doctoral studies, meant to warn people globally ‘don’t let the reefs die’, would have served no purpose. Field observation and the publicly available daily CO2 levels clearly show that a chain reaction has started that will increase atmospheric CO2 for centuries, perhaps millennia, to come.
The subarctic is warming at a faster rate than the rest of the globe. Tundra is frozen swamplands saturated with methane. Rapidly thawing, the tundra is releasing gigatons of methane into the atmosphere, speeding the warming and increasing CO2 and methane release. The global climate holocaust chain reaction is a hydrogen bomb, not a puny nuclear bomb.
Is the song of the hour Barry McGuire’s “Eve of Destruction”?
Humans evolved during a series of extinction events when atmospheric CO2 ranged from 200 to 240 parts per million, changing in under 1000 years, too rapid a change for most species to survive. Past global extinctions have been triggered by changes in CO2 greater than 25%. For the sake of argument, let’s assume humans, being very adaptable, can withstand an increase of 50%. The CO2 in the air has risen from 250 ppm to 415 ppm in less than a century. 15 ppm in 2021 when global industry was virtually shut down.
Radical social change is required if anyone is to survive. For thirty years, ecologists, paleoecologists, climatologists, and paleoclimatologists have warned that human extinction is inevitable by 2050. That date isn’t set in stone. Every discovery, every new calculation in the field in the past 50 years has reduced the life expectancy of our species. We act now, or in three, five, maybe ten years human extinction will be both inevitable and irreversible.
According to the IPCC report on climate change released this year, there is still hope for our survival. Start extracting methane from the air, stop using any fossil fuels, adopt a one child per family policy, act like intelligent human beings, we might make it. Chances are we die anyway, maybe by 2030 or 2040, but long-term survival is a physical possibility. But is human survival socially a possibility?
I watched the second Presidential debate with hope with Joe Biden. We have everything we need to ramp up biofuels and eliminate the oil industry completely. Build a larger biofuel industry, enough to power cars, trucks and airplanes, make still more and pump the vegetable oil stored underground. Almost everyone wins; humanity survives, new industry offers new jobs on top of workers owning their company.
Socially, we have a minority during a global pandemic who are against wearing protective masks or refuse getting vaccinated against Covid-19. Every anti-masker and anti-vaxer demonstrates their disregard for the safety of their family, friends, and neighbors, unwilling to be inconvenienced slightly to protect other human lives. How much of that 35% of the United States will make real sacrifices to save their children or grandchildren ten, twenty years from now when they will kill them with indifference today?
I was licensed to SCUBA dive before I was licensed to drive. I spent more than two years snorkeling or diving pristine reefs in Samoa and the South Pacific in my 20’s, learned to snorkel at age 7 in the kelp forests of Catalina and Channel Islands National Park, shore diving from San Diego to Goleta for more than 50 years.
I have borne witness to the ocean sickening and dying. Entire ecosystems are failing in front of us. This has been in progress, slowly, for the fifty years I have been a marine ecologist, hobbyist to academic.
I heard, off and on through my late 50’s that coral was completely gone. Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and Belize’s Turneffe Atoll were off, on, and off again on the UN’s list of World Heritage Sites. So, in 2020, I flew to Belize, and spent 10 days diving and snorkeling the overcrowded waters. There were almost no hard corals. I did see one sickly colony of shelf coral, its’ growth edge bleached by excessive heat, surrounding coral was covered in red calcareous algae. Sargassum weed, native to cold, Atlantic waters was raked into huge piles at the edges of resort towns, and frequently fouled my SCUBA gear as it drifted pointlessly choking the life out of the reef environment.
Once home in San Francisco I started to look forward to doing my first kelp dive in 10 years. Kelp forests grew in the Channel Islands from the cliffs plunging down in the water to a quarter mile to as far as two miles offshore, so thick and lush that in late summer you had to use special techniques to surface through the dense growth. “Kelp,” I read in a Monterrey diving report, “is at less than 2% of normal density, essentially extinct.”
My nephew Andre, more familiar with Monterrey’s diving and the yearly regrowth of Bull Kelp, but not recently, assured me it was fine, “just excessive growth of sea urchins,” he said.
Once out at the Channel Islands out of Ventura, I was out on a fun, play dive testing out some new equipment on my first kelp dive in ten years. We moored not 200 feet from the cliff face of East Anacapa, once surrounded by thick beds of year round giant kelp. There was no kelp forest, no kelp groves. Kelp wasn’t extinct; a sparse few stems held on between the boat and the cliff, with maybe eight plants growing together in the thickest stand. None was healthy. There were few species of fish, small in number. I have expected the dive master to round us up “nothing to see here”. Underwater, I was in every post-nuclear holocaust movie ever made. This part of the Channel Islands was a marine sanctuary, a supposed haven for marine life. In reality, it was a graveyard, tombstones fallen in age, memorials writ large in a dead, forgotten language.
Not all kelp is dying off. In the mid-Atlantic gyre, an area contained in a closed whirlpool by ocean currents, Sargassum filipendula grows in an area called the Sargasso Sea, off the US East Coast south of the Gulf Stream. Free floating, it is growing at a tremendous rate, expanding well past the currents that used to keep it contained. Millions of tons wash ashore in Florida, Louisiana, Texas, down fouling beaches along the Mexican Riviera, choking the dead reefs of Belize and costal Central America, and along beaches in Northern South America. Tourism centers spend billions to clean it off beaches in already impoverished economies. Most sinks, rots, depleting oxygen and killing fish, saturating the water with yet more carbon dioxide.
Maybe a more appropriate sond is The Doors ‘The End’?
Once again in San Francisco, I plan my next trip. Someplace warm. So I started to check out YouTube, looking at other people’s vacations, potential destinations. But I paid attention to when each video was taken. There was a pattern; healthy corals existed in some places, becoming more scarce every year. Then, in videos posted in 2017 forward, there are no more of the neon-bright coral reefs left. Dull grey, muted reds of calcareous algae, the slowly deteriorating corpses of ocean ecologies. People are dependent on the natural world for our every physical need, but mindlessly we have destroyed that which we need to survive. Without major change, we are extinct. The only piece of good news in the climate reports of 2021 is that it might, just might, be possible to capture and store enough CO2 that humanity might survive.
Most government attendees at the climate change summit this year arrived on private jets, neither thinking nor caring about the future of the environment, not for real. They left, corporate hacks and the government shills licking their boots, without a single actionable plan to capture CO2 or to manage the chain reaction increase already underway. A carbon dioxide nuclear bomb we have already launched.
The ocean is dead. End of story, until a half million years pass, and new ecologies evolve. Next time without humans to admire them, without humans to destroy them. Scientific illiterates still churn out babies as if there was a shortage. I sit in front of my San Francisco condo, on a bench, watching new parents putting their beautiful newborn children into their gasoline operated cars. I see the children, see them grow, knowing every one of them will be dead by age 20. Or maybe 10. The data has been out and public for decades. But few learn. Fewer care. And none act.