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Tidal waves of horrors are ruining the oceans

As temperatures rise, water-based ecosystems are being damaged beyond repair. Sophie Squire and Martin Empson take a deep dive into the ocean to explore the effects of climate change
Issue 2861
Under the sea

Sea and ocean temperatures are rising because of climate change

The oceans are becoming emblematic of a global climate crisis. Global ocean temperatures are about one degree higher than usual, reaching a record-breaking 22.7 degrees Celsius in April. A temperature “anomaly” in the North Atlantic shows a shocking rise in temperature far above normal levels.

The oceans are the primary repository for the extra heat from global warming, meaning they are an excellent indicator of how bad the climate is getting. The heat represents energy that will drive stronger storms, hurricanes and typhoons. A combination of factors likely caused the North Atlantic temperature spike.

Most important is the warming world, driven by the ongoing emission of greenhouse gases. Another factor may be a short-term change in prevailing winds from Africa, which usually put Saharan sand into the atmosphere above the Atlantic. This dust cools the Earth by blocking some of the sun’s radiation. 

But a key driver is the El Niño climate pattern that is just beginning and can last several years. El Niño is a regular event that regularly warms the Pacific Ocean off the coast of South America. It adds energy to weather systems and has a global effect. Its opposite is called La Niña, which has a cooling effect.

The oscillation between the two is known as the El Niño Southern Oscillation and probably makes the single most important contribution to global climate variations. This combination of natural cycles and climate change will drive further extreme weather events. Record ocean temperatures are a warning of what is coming. Cuts to public services and healthcare will exacerbate the crisis.

The cost of living crisis will also make it harder for people to get the protection they need. We can see examples of this from the recent hot weather in Britain. Parts of the country saw the highest ever attendance at A&E as thousands experienced symptoms caused by air pollution, sunstroke and heat exhaustion.

Dermatologists have recently warned that the high cost of suncream is deterring people from using it, with 10 percent of people saying it is too expensive to use. Suncream is one of the most profitable items for beauty companies, yet it’s an essential medical protection out of reach for the poorest people. 

Tackling the root cause of climate change and its effects will increasingly become an issue for the trade union movement. Writing in the Guardian newspaper this month, Hannah Fearn argued that air-conditioning was an “extravagance”.

But in a warming world, it will become a necessity. Working temperatures are already a major threat to workers in the Global South. We will have to fight for conditions that can protect workers and for energy systems capable of providing this sustainably. These battles will be a direct challenge to capitalist economic interests. 

Tragically, things are moving in the opposite direction. The Cop28 climate talks take place in the United Arab Emirates—an oil state—and are already dominated by fossil fuel interests. The change needed to tackle climate change and ensure workers can survive its ravages will have to come through struggle from below

The dark and murky deep-sea mining industry

The bosses want to go deeper into the ocean to plunder the planet for metals and minerals. While most coastal mining is done in relatively shallow waters, deep-sea involves removing deposits from the ocean floors at depths of around 200 metres.

Many of the metals and minerals found on the ocean floor, like manganese, nickel and cobalt, are in high demand. Last week a representative of the Norwegian government said the country would open its waters to deep-sea mining.

Norway’s minister for petroleum and energy, Terje Aasland, argued it needs the minerals mined in the dark depths to help in the transition to a greener economy. This has been the line repeated by mining companies who say the metals and minerals in the deep sea can make batteries for the green transition away from fossil fuels.  

But it’s impossible to mine to save the planet. The effects of deep-sea mining are likely to be catastrophic and outweigh any minor benefits. The deep ocean absorbs about 90 percent of the excess heat and around 38 percent of the carbon dioxide generated by humanity. Disturbing these delicate ecosystems could have an irreversible effect on the climate. 

Already the ocean floor is littered with discarded machinery, which mining companies have abandoned after trying to scrape the seabed for precious materials. These experiments have created plumes of pollution that float in the Pacific Ocean. 

In January climate group Greenpeace released undercover footage following a deep-sea mining test by Canadian mining firm The Metals Company (TMC) and its Swiss operating partner and shareholder AllSeas.

It revealed that the company was sucking wastewater from the seabed, which contained rocks, debris and sediment, and then depositing it on the sea’s surface. Unsafe practices like this can smother and choke ocean animals and plants over vast areas. 

Two years ago the government of the island nation of Nauru in the central Pacific called on the International Seabed Authority to set out regulations regarding deep-sea mining.  

This led to a clause in international law allowing countries to “pull a two-year trigger” on projects if they think negotiations over mining controls are moving too slowly. Yet the first deep-sea mining projects could still be given permission to begin this year.

Rising temperatures and yachts are destroying precious plants  

Climate change is destroying underwater flowering plants that are more effective carbon sinks than the trees in the Amazon. Massive expanses of seagrass called Posidonia span the Mediterranean Sea. Meadows of these plants play a vital role in storing greenhouse gas emissions, filtering the water and producing oxygen.

But these ancient organisms, which can live for more than 100,000 years, are under threat. Anchors dropped from poshos’ yachts cruising the Mediterranean can scrape along the seafloor, uprooting the seagrass. Posidonia meadows are protected by laws that ban anchorage in certain areas, yet these laws are not well enforced.   

The biggest threat to Posidonia meadows is climate change. Ecologist Patrick Astruch is a research engineer at the University of Aix-Marseille and a member of the Posidonia Scientific Interest Group. He explained to the French newspaper Libération that conserving these expanses of seagrass is essential. 

“It is estimated that Posidonia meadows have stored the equivalent of 10 to 40 percent of the greenhouse gas emissions of Mediterranean countries since the industrial revolution. In Corsica, they capture around 20 percent of the island’s CO2 emissions.” 

He added that warming seas will likely have a devastating effect on the meadows. “Without having all the answers, global warming seems to have a double effect. Firstly, it promotes the arrival of invasive species, which thrive in warmer water and compete with Posidonia beds, taking advantage of their poor state of health. 

“Second, increasing temperatures seem to have a direct negative effect on Posidonia. Maldives. We are at the limit of what Posidonia meadows can support.”

Island nations set to be swallowed    

For the people of the Republic of Kiribati, in the central Pacific Ocean, time is running out. The melting of ice caps, glaciers and ice sheets due to increasing temperature is causing sea levels to rise. Soon Kiribati could become the first nation to disappear beneath the waves.  

Storm surges have become more common, leading to seawater contaminating freshwater reserves, homes being flooded and damage to crops. Migration will be the only escape for the people living in Kiribati, yet larger states have been slow to accept refugees. Currently, New Zealand is the only country that has opened its borders to those from Kiribati—but with a catch. Only 75 people can move there every year.

The plight of those in Kiribati is not unique. Across the world, whole communities will be swallowed up by the water unless temperature rises are brought under control. The prime minister of Vanuatu, Seve Paeniu, and the minister for climate change, Ralph Regenvanu, recently wrote, “Our countries emit minuscule amounts of greenhouse gases. 

“But we bear the brunt of extreme events primarily caused by the carbon emissions of major polluters, and the world’s failure to break its addiction to fossil fuels. The climate crisis is driven by the greed of an exploitative industry and its enablers. 

“We know what needs to be done to keep 1.5 degrees Celsius alive and are aware of the small and shrinking window which we have left to achieve it. We are doing our part and urge the rest of the world to do theirs.”

Toxic Tunisian seas cause misery for local fisherman

More than three billion people across the globe rely on the oceans for their livelihoods. But those who make a living from the sea are struggling to survive in a world where profit comes first. In Gabes, Tunisia, small-scale fishers are finding it near impossible to bring in a decent day’s catch due to pollution and industrial-scale fishing operations. 

Pollution from 22 different industrial plants in the area has made the water and land toxic. The Gulf of Gabes is now one of the most poisonous stretches of sea in the Mediterranean. Three miles of this patch are so toxic that nothing grows there.

Local residents say that contact with the water can lead to cancer, bronchial disorders and premature births.  Almost all of the seagrass has been destroyed, and the Tunisian state allows massive trawlers to fish with little restrictions. 

“There are no fish anymore. It’s all dead,” said Sassi Alaya, a fisher from the area. This problem extends across Tunisia’s coastal areas. Béchir is a fisher from the Bizerte region in northern Tunisia.

In 2022 he said, “This year, in particular, it has been very hot. There are no fish. Everything is taken by the big boats using all possible means to find the fish. There’s nothing for the small fishermen who have not been able to take their fair share.”

But local fishers haven’t given up on the seas they use to support themselves and their families. Sassi has been part of a project to build an artificial reef made out of palm leaves. Local scientists reported that cuttlefish, which disappeared from the waters in the area, have begun to return.

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