Weather and Climate: Part Four of the Ocean Literacy Series

For the next four weeks we are discussing the concept of Ocean Literacy. In a series of principles defined by educators as fundamental to our understanding of ocean systems is the following:

The ocean is a major influence on weather and climate

Which comes first? The influence of weather and climate on the ocean? Or the influence of the ocean on weather and climate? Both, of course. Secondly, can weather or climate exist independently of each other, whether or not influenced by the ocean? No, they are inextricably inter-related, generally and specifically around the globe. These facts are not very well understood by the public, or, in many cases, by policy-makers, agencies, and politicians who, informed or not, must deal with the short-term consequences and long-term planning decisions that weather, climate, and ocean will demand. One can be blind to the implications of research and the almost universal evidence of science on the reality of changing climate and extreme weather on coastal populations, but one cannot be indifferent to the deaths, financial disaster, and physical disruption of storms, wind, drought, erosion, economic distress, community collapse, and cost of response and re-construction brought about by actual events.

Weather and climate change affect and are affected by the ocean - its physical distribution on earth, its currents, and its temperature. The evaporation of ocean water into the global water cycle has further implications on conditions far inland with concurrent implications for rainfall, local water supply, watershed management, food production, employment and unemployment, internal distribution of goods, floods, forest fires, erosion, sanitation and public health, and almost every other aspect of human life. Incidents reflecting these factors are prolific, and we are inundated with reports of increased ferocity, frequency, and damage worldwide. As the ocean covers so much of the earth's surface, amplified by its extended influence, it becomes a primary source and force for such phenomena with enormous loss of real property and human life. If climate and related weather change are a function of anthropogenic intervention in the asset value and processes of Nature, then we are the unknowing, knowing cause of our own distress. Knowing this, and failing to respond, transcends paradox to become self-destructive and illiterate.

The ocean is equally affected by climate change and weather. Two results are perhaps the most important: temperature change and acidification. The first determines the growth dynamic for life in the ocean - the incubation, feeding, and durability of marine species of every kind and the availability of that life as protein, medicine, and livelihood. Artisanal and commercial fishing are both a reflection of supply and demand: if demand is increasing through population growth and changing human diet - and supply is consequently limited by over-fishing and compromised habitat - then decreased regeneration and redistribution of the remaining resources are diminished leading possibly to collapse or extinction.

Acidification is the changing pH of the ocean, the measure of acidity and alkalinity that affects the growth and feeding habits, distribution and sustainability of all life in the ocean, whether marine animals or plants. A small change in the ratio can mean a very large change in ocean health, a consequence that is at first invisible, then perversely damaging, then very difficult to mitigate or reverse over time. Research indicates that the changing acidity of the ocean is having real, measurable consequence for the food chain, ocean plants, coral reefs, algae blooms, and many other dangerous adjustments in a heretofore relatively stable environment.

What is the cause? Again, research has shown, and scientists have attempted to argue, that man-made carbon and particulate emissions have deposited in amounts over time to have generated the pH change with all dangers for security and well-being for the future. The Paris Climate Agreement, with all its efforts to modify carbon production, emissions control and alternative energy use is a major step forward, if not perfect, toward an institutional and human response to what is an institutional and human condition.

The ocean speaks louder than treaties or denials. It is a natural voice of reality that must be heard. That is more than influential. That is an inviolate determining factor that lies at the heart of our collective survival - a voice perceived through weather, climate, abundance, resilience, community, and personal benefit, that demands our hearing, understanding, and response.

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PETER NEILL is founder and director of the W2O and is author of The Once and Future Ocean: Notes Toward a New Hydraulic Society. He is also the host of World Ocean Radio upon which this blog is inspired.