Posts in 'Saving the Ocean'

How Farmers Can Help Save the Oceans

It isn’t often that you get to go to a press conference in a freshly mown rye field and come home with a brown paper bag full of composted manure. That’s what I took away from a recent trip to Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I attended a groundbreaking ceremony for a new and unusual composting facility that will occupy a five-acre corner of the Hurst family farm.

Oregon Dairy Organics groundbreaking ceremonyOur unlikely press conference venue: Hurst farm in southeast Pennsylvania.

Compost has been much on my mind, and in my hands, with garden season at its glorious peak. In this summer of environmental disaster, it feels restorative to nurture your own little piece of the planet. As a gardener, I sometimes think about the environment on a micro level—such as my own backyard. What I have never fully appreciated until now was the planetary value of composted manure; nor did I understand its connection to one of our chief environmental problems: water pollution from the nitrogen used in agriculture.

“Farmers have gotten the blame for lots of problems. But they must be seen as part of the solution.”
John Dawes, Chesapeake Bay Funders Network

In 1909, a chemist named Fritz Haber developed a way to capture nitrogen, abundant in the air, and turn it into fertilizer for crops. He was awarded a Nobel Prize for “obtaining bread from air.” Today, 110 million tons of nitrogen fertilizer are spread onto fields worldwide; at best, only 50% actually goes into making food. The rest washes into rivers and groundwater, or is absorbed into the atmosphere. There, it is wasted, and lays waste to the water.

The greatest long-term threat to our coastal waters today is nutrient pollution from diffuse sources such as agricultural and urban run-off, sewer and wastewater treatment facility overflows, and airborne nitrogen pollution that settles on land and water. When nitrogen flows into rivers and oceans, it enriches—or fertilizes—the water to the point of upsetting the equilibrium of entire ecosystems. The result is an explosion in the growth of algae, often referred to as an algae bloom. As the algae thickens, it blocks sunlight and sucks oxygen out of the water, so that other aquatic life is smothered and suffocated, creating a “dead zone.”

The coastal United States is ringed with dead zones. The largest of these is a New Jersey-sized patch that funnels out from the Mississippi River Delta into the beleaguered Gulf of Mexico. This dead zone is so low in oxygen it cannot support life. Long after the effects of the BP Gulf oil disaster have been neutralized, the dead zone will remain with us.

We can put a stop to this explosion of dead zones. Farmers in beautiful Lancaster County, well known for its Amish population, have been worried about the health consequences of excessively high nitrate levels in the water they are drawing from their wells. They are also concerned about the crab and oyster nurseries downriver in the Chesapeake Bay that have been hard hit by nutrient pollution. (Please see sidebar for more EDF projects addressing nitrogen fertilizer run-off.)

Manure from livestock can help reduce nitrogen pollution.Manure from livestock can help reduce nitrogen pollution.

And these farmers are doing something about their concerns. Thankfully, there’s a solution as close by as the livestock barn. Manure contains nitrogen, along with phosphorus, potassium and other nutrients. As every gardener knows, this makes manure an excellent fertilizer, adding organic matter to the soil, improving soil structure, aeration and moisture retention. However, if manure is not applied at the right time and rate for crops to use the nutrients, its beneficial ingredients will wash away, possibly contaminating streams and drinking water. (Chemical fertilizers are even more of a challenge as synthetic nitrogen is washed out of the soil during rainstorms and deposited into waterways more quickly than organic nitrogen.) Composting the manure binds the nutrients and makes them more stable. The heat in the composting process also destroys pathogens, like E.coli, that can taint water and plants when raw manure is spread around crops.

The Hurst family business—a 950-head beef and dairy farm, grocery store, restaurant and garden center—is now also home to the Oregon Dairy Organics composting facility. Operated by Terra-Gro, Inc., it will take the manure from the Hurst farm, as well as other farms in the area, along with excess yard clippings and food waste from local schools and restaurants (which would otherwise go into a landfill), and mix and bake it under the cover of large plasticized canvas tunnels. The carefully calibrated compost will be of such good quality that it can be used by organic farmers and landscapers for private gardens and sports fields—replacing the commercial fertilizer now used where our children play.

Press conference for the groundbreaking ceremony.Press conference for the Oregon Dairy Organics groundbreaking ceremony.

The turnout at the press conference for the groundbreaking of the new facility was impressive—and a good indication of how many people were involved in the project. EDF provided the managerial expertise of high-energy Suzy Friedman, deputy director of the Center for Conservation Incentives. Friedman visited with farmers and coordinated project development and funding, which came from a dozen sources.

Among the 45 guests were several generations of the Hurst family, as well as the family of the family of site manager Merle Ranck. “I taught my son Loren everything he knows about compost,” said a twinkling Floyd Ranck. “That was back in the sixties, when everyone thought I was nuts to use manure in my vegetable garden.” Now his grandson will spend the summer overseeing the new facility. Oregon Dairy Organics expects to be selling compost by September, generating about 18,000 cubic yards of compost each year. Judging by the sample I took home and fed to my Meyer lemon tree, I expect wholesalers will be placing hefty orders.

The Chesapeake Bay Funders Network, which provided some funding, was represented by John Dawes. “Farmers have gotten the blame for lots of problems. The pressure on them has been enormous,” he said. “But farmers must be seen as part of the solution; they know that water has to be clean for their crops to thrive. Farmers have worked with the land for generations around here. They are the original environmentalists.” Pennsylvania Agriculture Secretary Russell Redding, who grew up on a farm, noted the fresh cut fields with delight. “Can we really find solutions to the difficult problems facing the Chesapeake Bay? I look around here, and I say, ‘Yes!'” The Chamber of Commerce representative added: “This a good business venture. And it is the right thing to do.”

Dawes captured the sentiment of all involved. “We’re ready to move dirt!” This composting venture should be replicated around the country. There’s nothing better than a crock of…compost. Black gold.

Photos from the groundbreaking ceremony and our day on the farm.
Personal Nature
Support EDF’s work with farmers and other unique partners to solve our environment problems.

Stop All Ocean Abuse!

We are killing our oceans. As I write, barrels of oil are still gushing from the broken BP well into Gulf of Mexico waters. The blog commentariat is in gusher mode too; most people are expressing heartfelt pain for the toll this environmental disaster is taking. But some seem to think the problem isn’t too severe. The ocean is vast, they say, and what is pouring into it from below its floor is by comparison tiny. One person compared it to a spoonful of oil in a swimming pool.

This is absurd. But it brings up an interesting point about our attitude towards the ocean. We think it is so large as to seem limitless. On old maps the oceans stretch to the horizon, the limit of the knowable, whereupon people fall off the edge of the Earth. We know better now, but somewhere deep inside us the vestiges of that mythology live on.

We’re in danger of forgetting what oceans used to be like and lowering our standards for what constitutes a healthy ocean.

That’s partly because we stand in awe before something so vast; it also reflects, I suspect, a subconscious desire to rationalize our careless ways. It is nearly impossible for most of us to believe that we are having catastrophic effects on our oceans—indeed, most of us are probably unaware of it. Three things are killing the oceans, explains Professor Jeremy Jackson of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego: overfishing, pollution, and climate change.

I’ve written before about acidification, how carbon emissions have accomplished the unthinkable by changing the ocean waters’ chemistry, imperiling valuable coral reefs and other forms of sea life. That’s only part of the picture.

Let’s take it at the local level. Are our waters pristine, anywhere? Here in Rhode Island, we are now pounded with increasingly common heavy rainfall that causes rapid flooding of rivers. During these storms, our sewage treatment plants are overwhelmed, and when they flood, fecal matter pours into rivers and flows into the ocean. Beaches are closed, from time to time, because of high bacterial counts in the water. This happens up and down the East and West coasts.

Let’s assume we can’t swim, but we can still walk the beach. This is one of my favorite things to do, at any time of the day or the year. I like low tide best, when I can catch a glimpse of that mysterious intertidal zone, and watch the creatures in the little pools that collect around the granite outcroppings characteristic of this area. These days, I no longer walk empty-handed, as I once did, because it isn’t the plovers that are catching my eye. It is the plastic.

Marine debris on the beach
Plastic trash and debris abound in the ocean and litter our beaches.
Photo: Ocean Conservancy

All year round, I fill trash bags with the detritus of human activity, from soda cans to sneakers to plastic baggies to abandoned toys; it is worse in the summer. The cigarette butts drive me crazy; has the beach become one big ashtray?

Magnify what’s happening on my beach to a global scale and you get the Texas-sized patch of plastic debris that is swirling around in the North Pacific Gyre, one of five major oceanic gyres. No one can say with certainty how large this trash patch is—it could be as large as the continental U.S.—because the plastic breaks down into particles that are suspended in the water below the surface. But one thing is certain: The plastic in the ocean—which will never biodegrade—is wreaking havoc on wildlife.

We don’t seem to understand—or appreciate—the catastrophic effects of such cumulative pollution. If someone drove a dump truck to the beach and unloaded a pile of trash onto the sand, beachgoers would be furious. They would do what they could to stop it. Yet they are heedless when their neighbors leave trash, bit by bit, as if it will simply disappear into the blue beyond. We don’t perceive trouble that creeps over us slowly the same way we do trouble that hits with an immediate force. But perhaps epic disasters like the BP gusher can focus attention on the subject of ocean abuse.

As Jackson describes it, we succumb to “shifting baselines syndrome”; we don’t pay close attention to slow change, even if it is chronic. Think of it in a personal way: if I gain two pounds every year, I might say (as I have) to my doctor, well, I’m only two pounds heavier than I was last year, so that’s pretty good. But if I shift my baseline, and look at my weight now compared to fifteen years ago, the picture isn’t so healthy.

Our baselines have been shifting with regard to our oceans. We are in danger of forgetting what they used to be like, lowering our standards for what is an acceptable measurement of health. Overfishing is, according to Jackson, “the most important alteration to oceans in the past millennium.” Because our supermarkets are full of fish, we assume ocean life is as abundant as ever—even while it is deteriorating.

Take lobsters. In the early 1800s, they were so abundant that they were used as bait and fertilizer. They were caught by hand during low tide along our rocky shores. In Rhode Island, colonial law protected prisoners and servants by limiting the number of times a week they could be served lobster. By the end of World War II, lobsters were a delicacy. In the last ten years, debate has raged among lobstermen about whether the lobster fisheries are in danger—because they are comparing catches from last year to catches from five years ago. But if we step back, and compare catches to one hundred years ago, there is no question that the lobster population is crashing.

There is something seductive about the dark, opaque surface of ocean water; it is mesmerizing. Many of us have felt the lulling solace of the eternal movement of waves and tides. Because we can’t see through the ocean’s surface, we irrationally operate with the assumption that the ocean can overcome anything.

Kids at the Beach
Now is the time to decide what sort of ocean we want to leave for the generations that succeed us.

We know better, intellectually: we know, for instance, that BP was drilling 1 mile deep. Underwater, that seems an enormous distance because we don’t have a human experience of such depth the way we do, say, of a one-mile walk, or a seven-mile run. (The ocean’s deepest point is seven miles.) No one can go such a distance underwater unaided and survive. In some atavistic way, one mile in the ocean seems far, far deeper than ten miles on land.

The impossibility of ever seeing this undersea world makes it seem as remote and untouchable as the surface of the moon—so how could we possibly have an impact on it? But we have—for the worse. The only possible good that could come of the terrible BP-Gulf Gusher is that as a nation we realize what a mess we are making of our world, our home. The oceans cannot take infinite abuse. But if we protect them, they will provide infinite food, inspiration, refreshment, and wonder for generations to come.

Personal Nature
Take action! Support EDF’s work to restore our oceans.

Ocean Acidification: A Hidden Risk of Global Warming

I love swimming in the ocean, but I also know plenty of people who wouldn’t dream of it. There are too many unseen perils: the ominous tug of a current, razor-sharp oyster shells, sting rays buried in the sand and shadowy, slimy things brushing past. Even my fishermen friends, who depend on the ocean for their livelihoods, keep a respectful distance from the waves.

The ocean is awe-inspiring. We were born of it, and it gives us life by producing much of the oxygen we breathe and the water we drink. It is mysterious and vast. No wonder we speak of emptying oceans with teaspoons to describe impossible tasks.

Yet, unfathomably, we have accomplished the impossible. We have changed the basic chemistry of the oceans — drop by drop — in such a profound way that we may be destroying a web of life that we depend upon for our very existence. Those ocean creatures should be wary of us — not the other way around.

“Scientists are concerned that we are changing the ocean’s chemistry so rapidly that we are outstripping the evolutionary pace of many organisms to adapt.”

The change we’ve introduced is called ocean acidification.

The basic science is pretty straightforward: Since the industrial revolution, humans have been pumping ever increasing amounts of carbon dioxide into the air. Some of that CO2 is absorbed by the ocean, where it dissolves to form carbonic acid.

The ocean today absorbs nearly a third of the carbon dioxide we produce, probably mitigating the impact of climate change. But the ocean has absorbed so much CO2 that overall acidity levels are rising, and at a much faster rate than previously thought.

More acidic water makes it harder — and ultimately impossible — for some creatures like oysters, corals and mussels to form shells, which are made largely from the calcium carbonate, plain old chalk, that occurs naturally in seawater.  That’s why acidification is sometimes referred to as “osteoporosis of the sea.”

Photo by Victoria Fabry
These tiny, lentil-sized pteropods are essential to the survival of creatures like the humpback whale. (Top photo: Limacina Helicina by Victoria Fabry.)
Humpback Whale and Calf

This process affects creatures up and down the food chain — from the tiny organisms that build the planet’s coral reefs and the plankton drifting with the ocean currents, all the way to the whales that feed on the plankton.

Also affected are the lentil bean-sized pteropods, delicate, balletic creatures that nourish many of the fish we then consume. In other words, the ability of all ocean life to sustain itself is being compromised.

Scientists have been surprised at how sensitive plants and animals are to even small changes in CO2 levels. Some creatures have shown an ability to adapt to more acidic waters; lobsters, for instance, harden their shells in an initial response to acidity. But for many creatures, acid is deadly: Their shells disintegrate. And many scientists are concerned that we are changing the ocean’s chemistry so rapidly that we are outstripping the capacity of many organisms to adapt.

Because the science is fairly new, we still do not fully understand the long-term effect of increasingly acidic oceans. The ocean is a complex, integrated, self-regulating system; how it will change is hard to predict.

As we conduct this uncontrolled experiment on two-thirds of the planet, scientists are racing to find ways to make the ocean more resilient. Doug Rader, EDF’s chief ocean scientist, says: “Along with our partners from around the world — from Cuba to the EU, and beyond — EDF scientists are scrambling to understand why some reefs are more robust than others, why some fish populations bounce back, when others languish, and exactly what mix of strategies will suffice to maximize the resilience of the world’s oceans.

“One thing is already clear,” he adds. “Rebuilding ecosystem complexity, including restoring populations of large predators such as sharks, is central to the long-term survival of the seas.”

The Obama administration signaled its commitment to acidification research when it appointed Jane Lubchenco to head the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Lubchenco, a widely respected marine ecologist and former EDF Board member, has made clear, in Congressional testimony and elsewhere, the seriousness of this threat to the seas.

There is no controversy surrounding the science underlying the acidification of the ocean. There is no question about where the CO2 is coming from. There is no question about how the chemistry works. And there is only one known way to stop acidification: to reduce emissions of carbon dioxide. The more we reduce now, the less severe, and costly, the future consequences.

What can you do? Become an advocate for the oceans. Take care to minimize your carbon footprint—but keep in mind one of my favorite phrases: living sustainably is necessary, but not sufficient. It’s equally important to demand comprehensive legislation that cuts carbon emissions.

And go ahead, take a swim. Bathe in those natal waters, and give thanks for the life they support. The ocean has the capacity to heal itself much faster than one teaspoon at a time. We need to give it that chance. We would be doing ourselves a big favor — giving our grandchildren a chance to inhabit a livable planet.

Personal Nature
Take action! Tell the Senate to cap the global warming pollution causing ocean acidification.

Editor’s note, 2/12: The list of animals that will experience difficulty in forming shells has been updated.

Healing the Ocean

Here are a few suggestions if you wish to learn more about the oceans in general, and acidification in particular.

I urge you to watch Dr. Jane Lubchenco’s fascinating, jargon-free testimony before the Select Committee on Energy Independence and Global Warming hearing, “The State of Climate Science” held on December 2, 2009. Lubchenco, a marine ecologist, runs the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and was, until recently, vice-chair of the EDF Board of Trustees. She is a terrific teacher; her demonstration of the process of acidification is classroom-friendly, and makes the science clear.

Part One:

Part Two:

The Monaco Declaration, recently approved by 155 scientists from 26 countries, sets forth the acidification problem in a straightforward manner. It also addresses the option of geoengineering as a solution. (Bottom line: only cutting carbon emissions will work.) The paper, which came out of the Second International Symposium on the Ocean in a High CO2 World, concludes: “Ocean acidification is rapid, but recovery will be slow. The current increase in ocean acidity is a hundred times faster than any previous natural change that has occurred over the last many millions of years.”

The broader picture
State of the World’s Oceans, by Michelle Allsopp et al, is a comprehensive overview of the latest published scientific information about the condition of the oceans. It is written by scientists working at the Greenpeace Research Laboratories at the University of Exeter in the UK. It is also clear and accessible, though goes into some depth — I recommend this for the committed amateur as well as for the dedicated science student.

Rachel Carson is widely known for her influential book on the dangers of pesticides, Silent Spring, but she wrote wonderfully and extensively about the ocean. She was a biologist in the U.S. Bureau of Fisheries in the forties; her first job was to write radio copy for a series of weekly educational broadcasts, “Romance Under the Waters.” Two of my all-time favorite books are The Sea Around Us, which was bestseller in 1951, and The Edge of the Sea, which also became a best seller. Though some of the information is outdated, both of these books are eminently worthwhile. Carson’s style is poetic. She writes movingly about life in the tidal zones, and makes you care about those unseen, tiny, tough, resilient sea creatures. Her sense of wonder is contagious. After reading The Edge of the Sea, your beach walks will never be the same.

Nearly a half century after Carson’s books appeared, Dr. Rod Fujita’s Heal the Ocean: Solutions for Saving Our Seas, is a clarion call for action to stop the desecration of the seas. Fujita, a senior scientist at EDF, paints a picture that is both frightening and inspiring: He reveals the mysteries of sea life and of ecosystems gone awry due to humans’ over-exploitation: seagrass meadows where turtles once grazed, majestic kelp forests reduced to rubble from an explosion of urchins because their natural predators have been fished out, delicate coral reefs, harboring a quarter of the world’s fish, under threat everywhere from climate change and pollution. Dr. Fujita offers a wealth of creative solutions grounded in science and economics and backed by real-world examples. He makes you believe in the ocean’s ability to restore itself — if humans can become caring stewards of the seas.

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