How Fossil Fuel Consumption and Production Alters the Ocean and Hurts Humanity

Large consumption and production levels of fossil fuels are altering ocean systems around the planet. The oceans are rising, expanding and acidifying and it has become apparent that human production and consumption of fossil fuels, such as carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases, are the reason why. This rapid changing of oceanic systems ultimately hurts humans, especially those in poorer regions of the world. There are ways in which humans can reverse this tide, but they will need to be implemented quickly to save humanity from the problems it has created.
Earth’s oceans play an intricate role in the health of the biosphere and the many organisms that inhabit it. Unfortunately, this natural resource is in jeopardy due to the unsustainable use of fossil fuels. The use of these types of fuels hurts the health of the biosphere and the oceans because it leads to a lack of biological diversity. Biological diversity is one of the Earth’s three principles of sustainability, and it is currently threatened by the use of fossil fuels. The Earth’s most abundant regions for biological diversity are northern South America and the western Pacific Ocean. These two areas are vital for the welfare of Earth’s organisms. The two important ecosystems are threatened by future fossil fuel extraction. “In a new study published in the international journal Science, environmental scientists reveal that fossil fuel extraction can have a double impact on local and regional animals and plants. This double whammy includes the obvious, direct impacts and the more subtle – but often more damaging – indirect impacts” (Professor Hugh Possingham and Dr Nathalie Butt of the ARC Centre of Excellence for Environmental Decisions (CEED) and The University of Queensland). Wildlife is directly impacted because the extraction of fossil fuels in their habitat would lead to so much fragmentation that the habitat would no longer support their species population. Indirect consequences live on even after the extraction. These indirect impacts include, the presence of invasive species, soil contamination, and water pollution. The indirect impacts are harder to correct and they can be more devastating for a regions biodiversity. While biological diversity is declining, the use of fuels that contribute to this decline are increasing at unsustainable rates.

As the global demands for energy increase, fossil fuels will continue to be consumed and produced at a high rate. Developing markets, such as those in China and India are driving this demand. The Worldwatch Institute has indicated that global coal consumption is still rising even though coal consumption in the United States and the European Union has been steadily declining. “Looking at recent developments by region, energy-hungry emerging economies have been driving the expansion in coal use since the beginning of this century. China used 1,933 million tons of oil equivalent (mtoe) in 2013, and India, 324 mtoe” (Christoph Von Friedburg Worldwatch Institute). As of 2013, overall global coal consumption was 3,826.7 mtoe, with the United States using approximately 455.7 mtoe. The slow-paced increasing production of coal and other fossil fuels, are exacerbating carbon emissions.

Concentration of carbon dioxide (CO2) in the atmosphere has reached unprecedented levels. In order to collect measurements on past temperatures and climate, scientists use ice cores to analyze tiny air bubbles, layers of soot and other materials trapped in different layers of the ice cores. By doing so, NASA has been able to show that in the past 650,000 years, atmospheric CO2 levels were never above 300 parts per million. In the journal Science, researchers published a study which analyzed a sediment core taken from the Arctic. They discovered that during the Pliocene period, around 3.6 million to 2.2 million years ago, the area around the North Pole was much warmer and wetter than it currently is. The concentration of CO2 during this era ranged from 380-450 ppm, rather comparable the rates Earth is beginning to experience today. “… part of the core from 2.2 million to 3.6 million years ago… contains enough fossil pollen and other signs of vegetation to bolster the idea that the mid-Pliocene Arctic was warm and forested, making it highly unlikely that the region had year-round sea ice at that time” (Ogburn 1). Since the start of industrial revolution, human activities, mainly the burning of fossil fuels, have led to significant increases in the presence of greenhouse gases in the lower atmosphere. Due to this, Earth’s lower atmosphere is warming at high rates. Between 1906 and 2005, the average global surface temperature has risen about 1.3 degrees Fahrenheit, with most of this warming taking place after the 1980’s. The CO2 ppm levels prior to the industrial revolution were at 280 ppm and now atmospheric CO2 concentration is currently around 400 ppm. “Current [atmospheric] CO2 values are more than 100 ppm higher than at any time in the last one million years (and maybe higher than any time in the last 25 million years). This new record represents an increase of 85 ppm in the 55 years…” (Dr. Charles Miller, lead researcher for Carbon in Arctic Reservoirs Vulnerability Experiment). The last time CO2 levels were as high as they are now, humans did not exist. The CO2 concentrations were at the same levels during the pliocene era, when the Earth was about three to five million years younger. Even with knowing that CO2 levels have reached an unprecedented mark for human history, the planet is still gradually increasing the production of CO2, and there are no indications this will slow down anytime soon. The Carbon Dioxide Information Analysis Center (CDIAC) has found that when lumping 2011 and 2012 together, global emissions of carbon were 19 billion metric tons. When discussing the sheer amount of those emissions the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration ( NOAA) writes “ These emissions produced a global accumulation of 9 ppm of CO2 in the two years, which would be equal to a 2.3% increase of atmospheric CO2.” Knowing the consumption and production levels of coal and other fossil fuels is important because carbon emissions are the driving mechanism behind the rise in atmospheric concentrations of carbon dioxide and thus, global temperatures. The reason why atmospheric CO2 concentration is not observed at such high levels, as emissions output indicates it should be, is because earth’s flora and the oceans absorb half of these emissions. The absorption of carbon emissions takes a toll on the oceans and leads to their rise, expansion, and acidification.

As humans produce more greenhouse gases, the oceans are left with the task of absorbing this extra heat. The worlds oceans, as NASA states, absorb more than 90 percent of the heat trapped by human produced greenhouse gases. The extra heat taken in by the oceans causes the sea levels to rise. Some parts of the Pacific Ocean are warming 15 times faster in the last 60 years than they did in the previous 10,000 years. This rapid warming occurs because there are three primary factors contributing to the rise and expansion of sea levels. These three primary factors are thermal expansion, melting of glaciers and polar ice caps, and ice loss from Greenland and Antartica. Thermal expansion, simply put, means that as water warms, it expands. When the temperature of water increases, the molecules within the water move and interact more, causing the water to require more volume. This means that as the oceans warm, the same amount of water will require more space. Since the warmer water will expand and take up more space than it would have otherwise, it leads to a rise in sea levels. Over the last 20 years, the annual rate in sea level rise has been 0.13 inches a year, which is almost twice the speed of the previous 80 years. The melting of the glaciers and polar ice caps are a key contributor to sea level rise because as the higher temperatures caused by global warming continue to lead to increased summer melting and lower snowfall accumulation in the winter, more ice will melt than ice will form. This creates a problem in which the water near glaciers gradually warm, leading to their thermal expansion. Ice loss from Greenland and Antarctica occurs because melted ice from above, and warmer seawater from below cause the ice sheets to break off and then move quicker into the ocean. Just how much ice are we losing though? In 2014 alone, Greenland and Antarctica combined, lost 451 gigatons of ice. Of these 451 gigatons, Greenland lost 303 gigatons. To demonstrate just how much water the Greenland ice-sheet lost in 2014, NASA has stated, “ An Olympic sized swimming pool is 25 meters wide, 2 meters deeps and 50 meters long. To hold 303 gigatons, that pool would have to be a little more than 6 billon meters long. That’s a pool that would stretch to the moon sixteen times and back.” The Greenland ice-sheet holds enough water to raise sea levels by 20 feet, and the Antarctica ice-sheet hold enough ice to raise sea levels by 190 feet. Two thirds of sea level rise will be due to thermal expansion of the oceans and the remaining because of melting. While the oceans are rising and expanding, inside the oceans the levels of acid are increasing.

A decline in pH levels of the oceans is known as ocean acidification. This acidification process is occurring at a higher pace because of the extra absorption of carbon dioxide from the atmosphere. The carbon program for the NOAA, has said, “ The ocean absorbs about a quarter of the CO2 we release into the atmosphere every year, so as atmospheric CO2 levels increase, so do the levels in the ocean.” The CO2 absorbed by the oceans is altering the chemistry of the water and leading to higher acidity levels. Since the start of the industrial revolution, the oceans have gone under a 30 percent increase in acidic levels. As a result of this lowered pH, coral reef growth is decreasing and the growth of reef builders is becoming severely inhibited. In order to measure the potential consequences of ocean acidification, the United States Geological Survey (USGS) conducted research on the growth of crustose coralline algae, a crucial plant needed for reef-building. The study concluded that at a lower pH, similar to the levels the oceans would experience in 2100, growth of reef-building algae was severely inhibited. The loss of this type of algae would hurt coral reefs because they play an important ecological role in the coral reefs health and sustainability. Numerous studies have shown that a more acidic environment harms calcifying species and when shelled organisms are at risk, the stability of the entire food chain is also at risk. The processes of acidification and thermal expansion will take a toll on human habitats around the globe.

Even just a small rise in sea levels can have a huge impact on costal habitats. As the sea moves inland, it causes erosion, flooding of wetlands, contamination of aquifers and agricultural soils, and lost habitats for fish, birds and plants. All of these changes lead to a vastly different ecosystem surrounding costal areas and will have a huge impact on humans. Nearly 2.4 billion individuals live within 60 miles of an ocean shoreline. That is over one-third of the world’s population. As the oceans rise, both surface and underground fresh water supplies will be contaminated by salt water. The shifting of sea levels will force many people around the world to relocate inland, if they even have the resources to do so. Low-lying island nations, such as the Maldives, are at great risk. Up to 187 million people would be displaced worldwide with just a rise of 6.5 feet. With the current pace of sea level rise, by the year 2050, the world’s largest 136 costal cities could lose up to 1 trillion dollars annually from floods alone. When discussing the effects of sea level rise, Greenpeace has said, “If current warming trends are allowed to continue, London, Bangkok and New York, Shanghai and Mumbai will be among a number of cities which will eventually end up below sea level.” Not even the richest nations will be able to avoid the flooding and fresh water contamination brought about by rising sea levels. The most recent study done by the International Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) found that sea level rise could be anywhere from 10-23 inches by the year 2100. A 23-inch sea level rise by the year 2100 would cost the United States 236 billion dollars. The United States is a nation with access to roads and a multitude of resources. Many developing and under-developed countries do not have the money or resources to defend against these events. Bangladesh, one of the world’s poorest countries, has a population of 168 million people. A three feet rise in sea levels could flood 17 percent of the country. This would displace tens of millions of people and reduce its rice-farming land by 50 percent, according to the UK Royal Society. Over a billion people require food from the ocean as their primary source of protein. Many jobs and economies around the world revolve around the presence of fish and shellfish. As the oceans warm and experience a changing chemistry these fish become less plentiful. The economies that once were dependent on ocean life will become depleted and the people that once lived near the coast will relocate in order to avoid the effects of a rising sea.

Knowing that the oceans are in complete state of change might discourage the idea that anything can be done to reverse these effects. Thankfully, this is not the case. There are many steps that can be taken to prevent the worst outcomes of climate change. First and foremost is getting world leaders together to address the consumption and production of fossil fuels. That is exactly what took place in 2002, when the World Summit on Sustainable Development met in Johannesburg, South Africa. At the summit, “it was recognized that fundamental changes in the way societies produce and consume are indispensable for achieving global sustainability. It called for all countries to promote sustainable consumption and production patterns.” The first step in solving a problem is to recognize that there is in fact an issue. As the majority of the world has come to an agreement that climate change is in fact science, leaders can now find ways to reverse the effects humans have caused. Green Peace has stated, “ There is some good news, though. If we act rapidly to reduce emissions we can still prevent the worst effects of climate change. Switching to renewable energy sources, if we do it fast enough, is our only hope to avoid disastrous sea level rise.” By leaving fossil fuels in the ground and instead utilizing emerging renewables, such as wind and solar, humans can reduce CO2 emissions. By promoting policies that increase the use of green technologies, the effects of rising sea levels can be mitigated.

Climate science is clear; the only step left now is for humans to end the unsustainable consumption and production of energy sources that hurt the planet and themselves. In order to help humans across the globe and reverse the expanding, rising, and acidifying of the oceans, the world must end its harmful production and consumption of dirty fossil fuels. Action must be taken immediately and it is up to each and every individual to demand this much needed change.

Works Cited
“As Our Oceans Warm, Sea Level Rises.” NASA Climate. NASA, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 15.

“Fossil Fuel’s ‘double Whammy’ to Wildlife.” UQ News. The University of Queensland, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Friedburg, Christoph Von. “Global Coal Consumption Keeps Rising, But Growth Is Slowing.” WorldWatch. WorldWatch Institute, n.d. Web. 01 Nov. 2015.

“Living Ocean – NASA Science.” NASA Science. NASA, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.

“Ocean Acidification.” National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.

Ogburn, Stephanie Paige. “Ice-Free Arctic in Pliocene, Last Time CO2 Levels above 400 PPM.” Scientific American. N.p., 10 May 2013. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

“Sea Level Rise.” Greenpeace International. GP, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.

“Sustainable Consumption and Production .:. Sustainable Development Knowledge Platform.” Sustainable Development. United Nations, n.d. Web. 02 Nov. 2015.

“WWF – Endangered Species Conservation.” World Wildlife Fund, n.d. Web. 01 Dec. 2015.

Tre Graves
English 220

Research Proposal

For my research paper I am going to explore how current consumption and production patterns are affecting the world oceans. I will focus on how consumption and production of fossil fuels, and the products that are made from them, such as oil-based plastics, alter the oceans of the world. I will research the ways in which carbon dioxide output leads to the rising, expanding and acidification of the oceans. I will then proceed to address how the use of plastics throughout the world is harming ocean life and creating plastic pollution. These problems will then be tied into how they harm people. Lastly, I plan to briefly explore solutions to the problems I outlined above. In order to carry out this research I will use climate databases from NASA, and well other scientific research papers. NOAA will be another helpful source. For solutions, I will also see how individual people are solving these problems in innovative ways.

I am personally interested in this topic because I want to learn even more about the ways in which the oceans are changing due to human activity. I think focusing on consumption and production of fossil fuels and their products is key because this will allow me to detail the sources for the current state of the oceans. Exploring that aspect of it will be something different and challenging. I am hugely against the use of oil-based plastics and also would like to show via factual evidence why plastics harm the environment and ultimately people. My goal for this research paper is to conduct thorough investigations of the issues at hand, and to show what steps individuals and society need to take to solve those problems.

This topic relates to the course because as we have touched on many environmental issues, this idea has always been one that was on my mind. This class initially talked about issues facing the southwest and its over consumption of water, I began to think about how human production and consumption contributes to climate change. A post on Facebook talking about plastic gave me the idea to possibly talk about plastics. After thinking about these issues the course brought up, I decided to mesh them together in order to make my research paper.


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