WORLD OCEANS DAY

World Ocean Day (WOD), celebrated on 08  June every year, brings an opportunity to raise global  awareness  of the impacts of  human actions on the ocean, and to mobilize support for sustainable global ocean management. It was first proposed in 1992 by the Government  of  Canada at  the Earth Summit  in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil  to highlight the importance of the ocean and to appreciate its intrinsic value. But it took 16 long years for the United Nations General Assembly to pass a resolution to this effect and was first celebrated officially in 2009.

A  waiting  time  of  sixteen  years  to  build  support  for  such  a  benign  and  non- controversial issue, does convey a sense of disregard and the relatively low importance of  oceans  in  the  global  agenda.  It  is  therefore  apt  that  the  relevance  of  the  oceans  is reiterated by the theme adopted for WOD, 2015-16, ‘Healthy Oceans, Healthy Planet’. This year will focus on plastic pollution in the ocean which is a serious threat due to its low rate of degradation and its potentially catastrophic consequences for marine life.

Oceans  are  essential  to  life  on  earth  as  they  drive  global  weather  systems  and oceanic currents sustain marine life. They create more than 50  percent of the earth’s oxygen which comes from phytoplankton – tiny ocean plants that live near the water’s surface. They also play a crucial role in reducing the impact of growing terrestrial CO2 emissions and it is estimated that oceans have absorbed approximately 28 percent of the cumulative anthropogenic  emissions  released  from 1750 – 2011.  Due to this large absorption  of  CO2,  the  pHi  of  ocean  surface  water  has  decreased  by  0.1,  since  the beginning   of   the   industrial   era.   This   is   a   significant   increase   in   acidity,   which corresponds  to  a  26%  increase  in  hydrogen  ion  concentration  and  is  about  30  times greater than the natural variation.

Oceans  act  as  natural  buffers  and  it  is  estimated  that  93.4  percent  of  the  total heat for the period 1993 to 2003, has been absorbed by the oceans. This has degraded the buffering capacity of oceans and led to warming of the upper 75 m of the oceans by 0.11°C per decade. Ocean thermal expansion has also been the single largest factor contributing to approximately 40 percent to the rise in sea level, which is threatening the existence of several low lying island nations. Long-term ocean monitoring has also revealed that oxygen concentration in the ocean is progressively declining and Oxygen Minimum  Zones  (OMZs),  which  are  naturally  occurring  regions  of  low  oxygen  areas present  at  100-1000m  depths,  are  increasing  in  number,  volume,  and  intensity.  The deadly  trio  of  acidification,  ocean  warming  and  de-oxygenation  of  the  oceans  is impacting   marine   life   and   evidence   suggests   that   this   has   led   to   lower   ocean productivity,  suppression  of  parts  of  the  marine  carbon  and  heat  sink  and  has  a significant impact on coral reefs and other forms of marine life.

The  year  2015  may  eventually  turn  out  to  be  seminal  in  world  history  as  it  is arguably the last chance to take collective action for limiting global warming (to within two degrees centigrade of temperature rise above pre-industrial levels, by 2100).  While reaching an agreement between 196 countries may not be an easy task, it is time that the world leaders commit to take definitive action on climate change. In the build up to the climate change talks, to be held at Paris in December, 2015, it is worth recalling the theme   of   the   first   WOD   in   2009,   ‘One   Ocean,   One   Climate,   One   Future’. Representatives from various countries are meeting in Bonn, Germany from 01 June-11  June,  2015,  to  finalise  the  negotiating  text  for  reaching  a  legally  binding  and equitable climate deal. In order to highlight the two way relationship between oceans and  climate,  the  Intergovernmental  Oceanographic  Commission  of  UNESCO  (IOC- UNESCO) organized a special event in Bonn, in the form of scientific workshops and plenary  sessions  by  bringing  together  scientists,  political  decision-makers  and  civil society to focus on the ocean’s role in the climate system and the need for taking ocean-sensitive actions. What the Conference of Parties (COP 21) negotiations achieves is yet to  be  seen  but  it  is  important  that  the  centrality  of  the  oceans  in  the  earth’s  climate system is noted and acknowledged by all countries.

Climate  change  and  oceans  are  inter-twined  and  healthy  oceans  are  vital  for  a healthy  planet.   Countries  in  the  Indian   Ocean  Region  need  to  be  concerned  as simulations  using  global  ocean–sea  ice  model  has  indicated  that  there  has  been increased heat uptake in the Pacific Ocean accompanied by increased heat transport to the  Indian  Ocean,  through  the  passages  of  the  Indonesian  Archipelago.   In  fact,  the Indian  Ocean  accounts  for  70  per  cent  of  all  the  global  oceans  heat  gain  up  to  700 metres depth  during the past  decade. While  efforts are being undertaken  in India by Ministry  of  Environment  and  Forests  (MoEF),  Department  of  Ocean  Development (Ministry of Science and Technology), and by regional organizations such as the Bay of Bengal Large Marine Ecosystem (BOBLME) project, much more needs to be done.

Raising  awareness  about  the  impact  of  the  human  actions  on  the  oceans  is  the key to build public opinion and to  mobilize support for protecting the oceans. As the leading maritime think tank, the National Maritime Foundation (NMF) can play a vital role   in   leading   this   awareness   drive.   Another   way   could   be   to   develop   global partnerships  with  like-minded  civil  society  organization  to  encourage  a  multi-actor approach for interdisciplinary action. The potential partner institutes of the NMF could be – The Global Ocean Forum, World Ocean Network, Pew Charitable Trust, The Global Ocean Commission, The High Seas Alliance, The Deep Sea Conservation Coalition, and The  Coastal  and  Marine  Union  which  are  frontrunners  in  leading  this  initiative.  The last aspect would be to engage policy makers both in India and abroad for the taking action to protect the oceans. All these aspects are mutually reinforcing and need to be simultaneously pursued to generate decisive action in conserving oceans.

Healthy oceans contribute to a healthy planet and the celebration of the WOD is a reminder to protect our oceans. A pledge to protect our oceans and a commitment to work for a clean and healthy global ocean would be each one’s  personal tribute to Lord Varuna, the Indian God of the Seas.

About the Author 

The author is a Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. The views expressed are those of the author  and do not  reflect the official  policy or  position  of the  Indian Navy or  National Maritime Foundation. He can be reached at kapilnarula@yahoo.com

End Notes

i  pH = log10  (1/aH   ) where aH is the hydrogen ion activity in the solution. Pure water has a pH of 7.0 at 25+  + i pH = log10 (1/aH +) where aH + is the hydrogen ion activity in the solution. Pure water has a pH of 7.0 at 25 degree C.

 

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